Magic Island nostalgia

This will be, for once on this publication, a rather non-political post. I had considered making this a lengthy Facebook comment, but figured a site such as this one would be the far more appropriate venue.

The Houston Chronicle has a terrific commemoration of “Magic Island,” the one-time dinner theater magic club located at Highway 59 and Greenbriar. The club/restaurant opened in the 1980s at the height of the pomp and ostentatious extravaganza that accompanied the oil boom. After years of decline, it closed its doors in 2008 following a fire caused by Hurricane Ike. Although it was supposed to reopen, that never ended up happening.

Magic Island piques an unique sense of nostalgia in me. Growing up, it was my absolute favorite place in the world. As a little kid, I went there twice with my family in fairly rapid succession; once for my grandfather’s 70th birthday and the other for — I think, at least — my brother being a National Merit finalist. I was five or six years old at the time, so everything was twice as big and twice as impressive. Anything that the adults may have found to be tacky or gaudy, I found absolutely mesmerizing and sensational. They must have had a good kids’ menu or something, because I always remembered the food with great fondness as well.

Then, for many years, we never went back. I get the feeling that, for my parents, the entire experience may have been forgettable, but not for me. When they would ask me, years later, where I would want to go to eat, in the whimsical way that parents always humor their children with decision-making responsibilities, I would invariably suggest Magic Island (well, there or Luby’s, but that’s a completely different story). It didn’t matter if it was a Saturday night right before Christmas or a Tuesday evening when everyone was just too tired to cook, my idea for sustenance would be Magic Island.

My romanticizing of the restaurant only increased as the years went on. Starting in the 4th grade, I began attending school at St. Stephen’s in Montrose. Every morning, as my dad would drive me to school on his way to work, we would exit 59 on the Greenbriar/Shepherd exit, and thus pass right by Magic Island without fail.

Magic Island became part of the legend that was Houston in my mind, one of the landmarks upon the pedestal I placed the city on. There was the big blue skyscraper, seemingly standing all by its lonesome, that my dad called “Transco” but my teacher called something else. There was the big white building, which almost looked abandoned, that my dad told me used to house this great newspaper, one that was bought and shuttered by its anti-intellectual competitor. Most importantly, there was Magic Island, the great infallible restaurant representing all that was perfect with Houston.

Finally, after eight long years, I went back (for another one of my grandfather’s birthdays). I was taller, wiser and more cynical. Everything looked a little sadder and everything looked a little cheaper. A few months later, Ike hit and the club closed its doors forever.

In some ways, I’m glad that I went back, but in other ways I wish I hadn’t. If there is anything that government, journalism and politics have all taught me, it’s that ignorance is truly — more than bliss — enviable. And my ignorance at five or six years old was, like most children, rather intense. In 2000, everything seemed invincible: myself, my family, my city. Magic Island, fittingly created during an era when everyone apparently believed the city was invincible, was a poignant representation of that.

The two big things wrong with politics

I tried for a good ten minutes to find a title that briefly and succinctly describes our broken political reality without using any type of expletive; I failed. It goes without saying that, particularly at the national level, the red-versus-blue tribal mentality of the day is extraordinarily awful. I’ve been trying to figure out the underlying causes for a couple years now, and think I have finally zeroed in on two central ailments.

The first is an adulteration of sincere information, which runs hand-in-hand with the demonization of views that challenge one’s own. This, in my opinion, has by far the most deleterious consequences.

As I have noted repeatedly in a somewhat jovial manner, the degradation of the consumption of “healthy” information has been somewhat rapid in this state. Newspapers are shriveling, news radio stations are shuttering and local television news has largely been reduced to 30 minutes of shooting coverages and cats of the week. Make no mistake, this is not because of a lack of competent journalists in all mediums. It is because the average Texan — indeed, American — is far more comfortable getting his “news” from the television monitors at a gas station than in something he actually has to read. I purposefully say he because the problem is significantly worse with men.

However, apart from apathy on the part of the average citizen, many political inclined individuals have moved away from the fair arbiters of newspapers and other unbiased news sources. Fox News and MSNBC are rather trite examples, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs allow partisans to create a completely alternate universe where their fantasies can become reality –ever so briefly. For a liberal in Austin who got 100% of her politics from Burnt Orange Report or Addicting Info, perhaps there could have been genuine shock to the utter shellacking that Wendy Davis and the Democratic slate received in Texas last year.

However, to cast this issue as equally bad on both sides would be monstrously disingenuous. When it comes to blogs and other online sources that spin the truth or just make stuff up, nobody even comes close to the Tea Party. I’m friends on Facebook with a few rabble-rousers within those organizations, and I see no shortage of evocative headlines from sketchy sources littering their timeline. They are the political equivalent of the National Enquirer, though that would probably be an insult to the Enquirer for the 5% of stuff they don’t make up.

Take this recent article from “Next Generation Patriots” about a supposed report linking Hillary Clinton to the Benghazi terrorist attack once and for all. Nevermind that even the Republican committee that orchestrated the investigations have cleared the administration. This is a BOMBSHELL REPORT! Sadly, all too many people believe this drek, because somehow they have been deluded into thinking that these uber-partisan online tabloids are more reliable than actual newspapers. I am baffled and speechless.

Similarly, I saw a Facebook friend share this nearly year-old post from “America’s Freedom Fighters,” which alleges that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the American government. At this point, I’m really at a loss for words. Are the authors of these sites actually delusional, like in a clinical way? Or do they just sit around a big room thinking of provocative things to completely lie about? And yet, individuals heavily involved in Tea Party causes, the 1% of the political process in this state, actually believe them and are influenced by them.

The decline of the information process has a companion in the elimination of robust opinion journalism. In my view, the harmful effects are comparable. We have become a nation of echo chamber dwelling simpletons, who become offended by anything that challenges our own preconceived notions.

For example, since the summer, I have served on the editorial board of The Daily Texan (one of the top 10 largest newspapers in the state), also serving as an editor for the opinion/editorial section. I like to think that the Texan runs our editorial content the way a reputable publication should. For the three semesters I have sat on the editorial board, our consensus opinion has been somewhat left-of-center, but we have always gone to lengths to ensure we have a plethora of conservative voices as columnists.

Sadly, few appear to appreciate this dedication to diversity in the editorial pages. The columns chock-full of liberal talking points get spread far-and-wide by like-minded individuals and groups; same for the conservative talking points. The few times I have shared columns that I disagreed with, but were particularly thought-provoking nonetheless, I faced nothing but derision by the “Tea Party Democrats” who incessantly accused me of being some type of horrendous political traitor who should be ashamed of myself.

Opinion content is not about validating all of your existent beliefs. Rather, it is about challenging your conventions. I have always been raised to believe if you cannot defend your views and positions against criticism and derision, they weren’t very good beliefs to begin with. With politics, that is especially true.

I subscribe to three magazines: The Atlantic, The Economist and Texas Monthly. If I had extra time and money, there would likely be others on that list, but those three in particular have always struck me as understanding how opinion content should work. They are unafraid to taking bold, new positions, and they defend these points with logic and reason remarkably well.

Particularly with the Economist, I found myself Freshman year of college disagreeing with a great deal of its content. The sophomoric juvenile in me wanted to just stop reading and retreat to the trite, backwards leftism of The Nation or Mother Jones —but the adult kept on reading. After a semester or two, two major developments had occurred in my political thought process. First, I had gotten a lot better at defending my tried-and-true liberal positions in the face of unwavering criticism. For example, the Economist is thoroughly skeptical of affirmative action, a program that I have always greatly supported. I like to think my defense of that position has been made more competent.

Second, and perhaps most important, some of my lousier political positions changed. Most notably, when I was in high school, I was a paleoliberal on topics such as free trade and protectionism. I opposed NAFTA. I favored silly, outdated things like tariffs and foolishly thought that such a course of action — say, by heavily taxing Japanese automobile imports —  could do things like pay down our deficit and assist in economic prosperity.

The more I did research inspired by those articles, the more I realized that free trade — arguably the Economist’s biggest trademark — is not an inherently bad idea. My introduction to economics class at Brandeis — a “saltwater school” in Boston, not a “freshwater school” in Chicago — corroborated this, and that was that.

Sadly, few people use opinion-based political content for such reasons anymore. All too often, it’s just used as a way to support what one already believes. Anything with which one disagrees with is immediately labeled heresy or worse.

The second, and admittedly probably less important, problem plaguing our political system is a total elimination of respect for authority. Let me clarify: I do not mean blind allegiance to one’s government or jingoistic patriotism or the like. Instead, I mean respecting the opinions of experts in their pertinent fields.

The most egregious example of this, in my opinion, is the Tea Party total adulteration of the word “constitutional.” In their topsy-turvy world, the constitution has taken on this divine power in which it is revered as a truly perfect piece of literature. “Look to the constitution” is the cliche that is the answer to nearly every single political quandary, much how “look to the Bible” is the trite retort for a proselytizing fundamentalist.

First, it goes without saying that the constitution is far from perfect (3/5ths compromise, anyone?), but the real issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how we adjudicate disputes about the nation’s founding charter: the court system.

Even otherwise reasonable conservatives fall into this trap, quickly calling Obamacare some type of “unconstitutional” trainwreck. Most criticisms fall within the realm of one’s opinion, but the constitutionality of a law is not one of them. The Supreme Court explicitly upheld the crux of Obamacare’s constitutionality in 2012. By definition, that means it’s constitutional. I would say you’re supposed to learn about stuff like judicial review in the 11th grade, but the Oklahoma Legislature is definitely doing their best to prevent that.

The Tea Party, egged-on by those aforementioned political tabloids, has taken it upon themselves to usurp the judicial system’s authority to call something constitutional. To a lesser extent, the left has done this as well. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a Democrat insist the campaign finance restrictions struck down in Citizens United were indeed “constitutional,” I could’ve bought an extra Dr Pepper at lunch today. You might disagree with the decision (I do), but, by definition, it’s not constitutional. My father, an attorney, made a point of teaching me that lesson in 2008 after the District of Columbia v. Heller case. If 14 year-old Noah can understand, you can too!

Sadly, the distrust of lawyers on legal matters is not the only example of such willful ignorance. Teachers have lost their ability to teach children without criticism and, of course, doctors and other medical professionals are accused of not knowing better than parents on medical knowledge. This was recently exemplified by the recent brouhaha over vaccines.

These deleterious beliefs of one’s superiority over everyone and anyone — no matter how knowledgeable or qualified on pertinent issues — have penetrated even ostensibly professional quarters of our society. I recently found Greg Groogan, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate, promulgating that exact type of hooey, specifically on the vaccine issue. (If you want to have some fun, check out the succeeding conversation on Twitter. I called him out, and he went off on me in especially sanctimonious and patronizing way. This, from someone who just straight-up fabricated stuff during the last mayoral election.)

This was a little more longwinded than I was going for, but those are what I believe to be the two most harmful impediments to a functional political system that we currently face. I fully admit I have broken these rules myself on a variety of occasions, but I have recently been trying my best to follow them.

The AL4 cast shows up

The Houston Chronicle reports that a few new names have been added to the candidate roster for one of the Houston City Council’s open At-Large seats, specifically position #4, which is held by term-limited Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). The seat has recently been held by a series of African-American representatives; even lead the standard-bearing Chronicle has noted this. Back in December, I noted that Laurie Robinson — a previous candidate for the city council — will be running for this position. Now, two more names have entered the fold: Amanda Edwards and Larry Blackmon.

Edwards is an attorney at a downtown blue-chip firm, whereas Blackmon is a retired teacher. Both have a number of connections in the local political scene, but they are not especially significant compared to Robinson’s. All three are fairly dependable Democrats, but each have ways of distinguishing themselves. Robinson, for example, ran against a fellow Democratic Councilmember, Jolanda Jones (AL5), when she ran in 2011 (Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) also ran, and was the eventual winner). I was not old enough to vote in that election, but I covered the races with some familiarity, and would have voted for Robinson if I had been eligible. She garnered the endorsement of The Young Independents Club of Emery High School, for what it’s worth.

As the Chronicle article notes, this activity is relatively recent compared to the other open At-Large seat, position #1, which is being vacated by term-limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), who is also running for mayor. In that race, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis, HCC Trustee Chris Oliver, Trebor Gordon, Michael “Griff” Griffin, Philippe Nassif and Jenifer Pool will face off.

For the other At-Large races, there aren’t many surprises. Former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) will seek a rematch against Councilmember David Robinson (D-At Large 2), who defeated him in 2013. Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) will cruise to re-election with minimal or nonexistent opposition. Perhaps the most intriguing contest is the last at-large position. Christie is reportedly running for mayor, or at least seriously thinking about it, even though he is still eligible for one more term. If he does run, it will create a third open seat. I know of one individual who is all-but-officially running for AL5, Christie or not, but I am not sure if she is willing to go on record yet. For those of you asking, my father will not be running again for the post.

As for AL4 in particular, I have two main thoughts. The first is to not be surprised if yet another candidate jumps in. I have heard about one individual in particular who has intently been looking over the race, and could really make a splash. Second, we officially have a citywide contest with more than one female candidate! In a city where the majority of the council was once comprised of women, female participation in elected municipal office has precipitously dropped. Zero women are, at press time, running for either Mayor or City Controller; a frightfully sad statistic.

In the next few days, when I have time, I will create one of my perennial side pages in preparation for the 2015 Election. Stay tuned!

Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos and Off the Kuff have more.

Laurie Robinson to run for AL4

Texpatriate reports that Laurie Robinson, a local businesswoman, will run for the Houston City Council next year. Specifically, as Houston Chronicle reported Theodore Schleifer reported on Twitter, she will seek out At-Large Position #4. The seat is currently held by Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is term limited. The seat, which was previously held by now-Controller Ronald Green, has historically been held by an African-American officeholder, and this recent history has been noted repeatedly in recent weeks as a plethora of Caucasian candidates have stampeded into At-Large Position #1 and only that position, the other open seat.

A number of other names have popped up for this seat in conversations taking place behind closed doors, but none with enough certainty to be written in ink. Thus far, as noted above, most activity has taken place around Position #1, currently held by the term limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), a likely mayoral candidate. As I noted in the article I linked above, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the post, as will Jenifer Pool, Philippe Nassif, Trebor Gordon and Griff Griffin. All except Nassif have run for office a few times (Griffin in particular about a dozen times).

Robinson, for her part, is no political novice. Most notably, she ran for At-Large Position #5 in 2011 against both the incumbent, Jolanda Jones, and the eventual successor, Jack Christie. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of either, so Robinson was naturally my favorite candidate in that race. Now, I was 17 at the time of that election, but if I were of age, I would undoubtedly have voted for her. More recently, many attempted to recruit her to run for council in 2013, but she declined to do so at that time.

Speaking of Christie, that is the At-Large Position (No. 5) I have been the most curious about. A two-term incumbent, Christie is eligible to run for re-election once more, but he has been telling many throughout the city that he has opted to run for mayor instead. This would make the position open. Much like AL4, quite a few names have been tossed around for this post, from community leaders to newcomers to my own father (to my knowledge, he’s not considering it; though unlike George P. Bush, I would wholeheartedly endorse my dad if he chose to run), but none on the record. I have contended that Christie may end up running for re-election anyways, but the filing deadline (August) is still a long ways off.

What have you, readers? I won’t humor rumors in my post, but I’m not necessarily averse to seeing them in the comments section.

Texpatriate’s Questions for James Horwitz

Editorial note: This is the twenty-fourth in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <>.

Further note: Editorial Board member Noah M. Horwitz took no part in the implementation or publication of this questionnaire. Unlike the other Probate Courts, Texpatriate did not offer an endorsement in Probate Court #4.

James Horwitz, Democratic candidate for Harris County Probate Court #4

Texpatriate: What is your name?
JH: My name is James Horwitz

T: What office are you seeking?
JH: I am the Democratic candidate for judge of Harris County Probate Court No. Four (4).

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
JH: I have not held elected office before.

T: What is your political party?
JH: Democratic Party.

T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
JH: Only recently have the actual filings in probate cases become easily been accessible to the public. As an attorney I hear many complaints from other probate practitioners concerning rulings from the bench in this court involving lack of legal knowledge of or failure to follow the Texas rules of civil procedure. While the cases are still pending in her court, it is not ethical of me to comment further on those matters

T: What is a contentious issue that you believe the Court will face in the near future? Why is it important? How would you solve it?
JH: Two issues-

First there is the issue involving the “probate” club wherein probate judges appoint their favorite attorneys as guardians and/or ad litems. The process doesn’t pass the “smell” test and needs improvement by expanding the pool of possible guardians and attorney ad litems. The seminar wherein certification by the State Bar of Texas to act as either a guardian and/or attorney ad litem will be offered on Saturday mornings in my court and publicized widely. My appointments will be tailored to the needs of the individual party and/or ward requiring such appointment matched with the attorney whose qualifications and experience is the best fit. It is easy enough to create such a system. It takes the willingness to break away from “go along to get along’ system that currently exists. Although I have practiced probate law for 37 years, I am not by choice a member of the “probate” club. I have chosen in my practice to be free of any one label or specialty certification. I am independent and not beholding to the probate bar because of my varied and long background of practicing law.

The law provides family members with certain rights as addressed in probate court. The second issue involves the definition of what is a family. Every family is different and in the next 4 years (the term of office that I am seeking) the definition of what is a family is going to expand.   It is up to judges at the lower court levels to not be afraid to follow the law as dictated by the laws of Texas and the Constitution of the United States. Our society and our community needs individuals with varied and balanced backgrounds as judges so as to make fair and impartial decisions based on the facts and constitutional law every time, balancing the needs of the individual versus the needs of society and not allow ideology or public pressure to dictate their decisions.

T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
JH: The incumbent is a young bright person. I believe I am the better candidate not because of any particular fault of the incumbent, but rather because there are no short cuts to experience and especially wisdom. I have practiced law for thirty seven (37) years, more than twice as long as my opponent. Before that I was a social worker working with families in crisis. When I began my legal practice, my opponent hadn’t even begun first grade. My experience counts. For thirty-seven (37) years, I have represented thousands of clients in estate planning and probate court as well as at all levels of the civil, criminal, family, and juvenile courts in Harris County, Texas, including also a multitude of other jurisdictions in Texas. My wisdom counts. My sound judgment has been gleaned from nearly four decades of work providing assistance to individuals and their families through my dedication to quality, my understanding of the foibles of people, and my understanding of the law.

My experience and wisdom is the result of working, now in my fourth decade, with the grieving, the divorced, the criminal, and the incompetent. I am also a husband, father, and grandfather with aging in-laws and special needs relatives – all of the above provides me with a unique perspective to understand and address the needs of those that come before me as a judge in probate court. Voters in Harris County should vote for me to bring an independent voice to the probate courts utilizing the law and fairness with compassion. I will follow Texas law as I know it with the upmost regard to the Constitution of the United States.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
JH: I believe my experience as a lawyer best matches up with that of my opponent. I began practicing law in 1977. The 4 existing probate judges were licensed respectfully in 1973, 1980, 1982, and my opponent in 1997. My law practice is now spent helping families cope with aging and the transitions required in moving assets between generations. My varied background outlined above beginning with my social work experience wherein I helped create and managed the first two halfway houses for runaway children in Harris County, Texas (Family Connection and the Sanddollar) as well as co-designing the test for licensing of all child-care administrators in the State of Texas as well as my legal work with the general public involved in business and the court system provides me with the tools necessary to be a judge in probate court. I have been endorsed by the AFL-CIO Council of Harris County, Texas, the Harris County Association of Trial Lawyers, the Harris County Democratic Lawyers Association, and the Houston LGBT Political Caucus.

T: What role do you think a County Probate Judge should have individually? What role do you think the County Probate Courts should have as a whole?
JH: Judges should be impartial but not isolated. Judges are elected from the community, and judges should be involved in the community. It is the civic duty of all elected officials to not only do their job well, but also to educate the public relevant to the governmental functions in their office. I believe one of the obligations of the job of probate judge is to educate the public on the methods by which individuals can use self reliance and simple actions in order to maximize their decision making on their own well being and estates so that the government role’s is minimized as to determining the most personal decisions in a person’s life. That is why I will speak to all interested members of the public, and not only lawyers, on these topics now and when elected.

Probate involves the administration of the distribution of the assets of a decedent (one who has died) according to the laws of descent and distribution if one has died without a Will such as by granting an Order of Administration giving judicial approval to the personal representative to administer matters of the estate, determines the validity of Wills, makes orders concerning the provisions of a valid Will (by issuing the Order Admitting a Will to Probate), rules on issues of breach of fiduciary duties by executors and administrators of estates.

In contested matters involving probate with a Will, a Probate Court examines the genuineness of a Will and/or whether the Will was made under duress or that the Will is not the last Will written by the deceased person. It is the job of the Probate Court to decide which Will is authentic. Once that determination is made, the Probate Court appoints an Executor to fulfill the terms of the Will. In many cases, an Executor is named in the Will and the court appoints that person. The Executor then executes the Will according to the deceased person’s wishes as stated in his/her Will. When age, diseases, and injuries impact our abilities to be self sufficient, the establishment of a guardianship can occur. A guardianship is a relationship established by a Probate Court between the person who needs help – called a ward – and the person or entity named by the court to help the ward. This person or entity is known as a guardian.

In Texas, a person does not have a guardian until an application to appoint one is filed with the court, a hearing is held and a judge then appoints a guardian. When the court appointment is made, the person the guardian cares for becomes the ward. There are different types of guardianships available in Texas. They are:

  • Guardian of the person, full or limited
  • Guardian of the estate, full or limited.
  • Guardian of the person and estate.
  • Temporary guardianship.

In addition to individuals, entities and guardianship programs can be appointed guardians. Guardians have legal responsibilities and are required to perform certain tasks and make reports to the Court while providing assistance to their wards.

The Probate Court should look at the individuals and programs willing to be guardians and base the appointment of guardians on several factors including: a preference to appointing a qualifying family member as guardian rather than guardianship programs or court appointed attorneys.

The Probate Court also should establish how much freedom a ward may have to make his/her own decisions. The Probate Court should decide limitations on a guardian’s authority.

T: Would role do you think mandatory mediation should have in Probate law?
JH: I would require parties to engage in mediation before trial occurs. Many parties absolutely believe mediation will not work, and yet discover, once they go through the process, that outstanding issues can be worked through and their case either partially or fully resolved. It is one of my tenants in life that people are entitled and obligated to participate in as many ways as possible in the decision making process that affects their lives. I would ask mediators that wish to be appointed by my court to attend meetings with me to discuss ways to be more effective mediators in my court.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
JH: I once ran for a position on Houston City Council. There was no “D” or “R” beside my name or the names of my opponent. The public had to learn about my public policy positions and not through the lens of a label. I am proud to be a Democrat and to have the core values of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, one’s political party affiliation, while acknowledging that it is important, should not be the sole factor determining whether that candidate should be elected as a judge. A strong knowledge base, experience, and proper temperament should be the keystones of a good judge.   Our democracy works to the degree our citizens are factually informed about the candidates and not swayed by party labels or spin. Additionally, I echo the comments of a fellow candidate in supporting term limits for judges. Electing judges is a community responsibility. That responsibility filters down to individuals doing their civic duty and seeking public office. There is no shortage of qualified individuals ready to assume the mantle of a judgeship.

T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
JH: (1) I bring knowledge and information to the general public about estate planning and the probate court. To that end, I have spoken to many groups on this topic. As I mentioned above, I want individuals to use self reliance and simple actions in order to maximize their decision making on their own well being and estates so that the government role’s is minimized as to determining the most personal decisions in a person’s life.

(2) I utilize the community resources in Harris County, Texas to enhance the education and care of families in distress that I have come into contact with in my life. I did that as a social worker and now for close to four decades as a lawyer. To that end I am meeting with the Dean of the University of Houston School of Social Work to develop a program wherein graduate students can assist the probate courts in monitoring the effectiveness of the existing guardianships as well as to be resource for such families requesting guardianship.

(3) Preserving the civil rights of our citizens is so very important to me. To that end, I do not agree that basic civil rights are or should be subject to popular vote. When I graduated high school in May, 1967, it was still illegal to have a white-non white marriage in Texas. Unbelievable. Yet the general public in Texas as well as the Texas legislature seemed to favor it. Such laws were always unconstitutional in my mind, and finally the Supreme Court agreed. I have argued throughout my professional career on behalf of the civil rights of our citizens as guaranteed by our United States Constitution.   Minorities, women, the LGBT community, and special needs individuals already possess their civil rights. Our society needs to enforce those rights.

Texpatriate endorses in Probate Courts

Editorial note: James Horwitz, the father of Editorial Board member Noah M. Horwitz, is the Democratic candidate for Probate Court No. 4. While we have sent questions to both candidates and will be publishing a completed questionnaire by James Horwitz, we have decided to not offer an endorsement in or otherwise cover that race between him and incumbent Judge Christine Butts, a Republican.


One of the candidates for these courts always opens his remarks by noting that the Probate Courts hold a special place for the residents of Harris County. Ideally, one will never have to experience the process of Criminal Courts as a victim, witness or defendant. Likewise, with squabbles over money at Civil Courts or divorce at Family Courts. But every person close to you, and then yourself, will eventually die. The Probate Courts serve as a legal bookend for this inevitability, presiding over the distribution of an individual’s estate. They also deal with guardianship and mental health hearings.

Obviously, compassion and expertise is needed for these benches. Dealing with the elderly and deceased is an obviously sensitive subject that requires restrained jurists, willing to always hold themselves with integrity and respect. This board has found a number of key policy disagreements that we have with the incumbent Republican judges. In the three contest we will make a pick in, we choose the three Democrats.

First and foremost, we have been disturbed to see the cozy relationship — one that hovers around the line of impropriety — that judges take in recruiting and appointing ad litems. These coveted positions should not merely be the product of a spoils system between officeholders and their political friends, but should reflect the best and brightest of the legal system.

Probate Courts are also renowned for having somewhat light dockets. Compared to their absolutely swamped colleagues at the Criminal Court, these courts have comparably few cases. In fact, a compelling point could be made to reduce the number of courts, saving the County and its taxpayers money, if some simple and fiscally prudent actions are taken. First, in disputed probate matters, the Courts should rely more on mandatory mediation before full court proceedings are initialized. The practice is already commonplace in Family Courts, and could have the effect of significantly reducing the case load.

Furthermore, only the Democratic candidates have been vocal about the need to provide education throughout the county on the importance of probate planning. The families of those who die with a valid will can often wrap up their court experience somewhat rapidly. Comparably, the families of those who die intestate (that is, without a will) take up a far bigger portion of the court’s time. Quite literally, the amount of court time saved by implementing such policies could put these candidates out of a job if courts are consolidated. But these candidates aren’t merely looking for a paycheck from Harris County, they’re looking to help the residents of Harris County.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, this board has looked for open-minded candidates for these courts. In the next few years, unique conundrums will likely arise in these courts, such as the question of a common-law married same sex couple. For example, if two men who were legally married in another state (a union, therefore, currently recognized by the Federal Government) were residing in Texas, and one such man died without a will, would the court consider recognizing his husband as his common-law spouse? State ethical rules, of course, prohibit candidates from publicly opining on such issues, but we have tried our best to find candidates who would approach this conundrum ethically and compassionately.

Judge Loyd Wright, seeking a second term in office, has done a passable job on the bench. A Republican, the Houston Chronicle thought the most impressive action from his first term was getting a staff member to answer the court’s phone during business hours. I guess this is a good thing, but those are some pretty comically low standards. Harris County simply deserves better.

Wright has also made a point of not separating partisanship from the bench. From his official online social media accounts, he often espouses divisive political rhetoric that has little to do with the administration of probate courts. Tropes over the supposed “cultural war” and quotes galore from Rush Limbaugh line the page. Now, unless the infamous shock-jock has made some recent comments we are not aware of pertaining to wills and trusts, this is just inappropriate.

His Democratic opponent, Kim Hosel, is herself a tremendously experienced attorney who would not make the same mistakes. Impartial and compassionate, we have no doubt that Hosel would be a superior judge in all the issues we delineated above: ad litems, mediation, education and open-mindedness.

Accordingly, this board endorses Kim Hoesl for County Probate Judge #1.

Judge Mike Wood, a six-term incumbent, is a very well versed and qualified jurist. A former President of the National College of Probate Judges, he is uniquely situated to lead the court. Once again, if your number one goal is stability in the court and an efficient docket, we have no choice but to recommend Wood, a Republican, for re-election. He is a good judge who has, and would continue to, serve Harris County well.

But his opponent is also remarkably qualified. Serving both as a Municipal Judge in Houston (on two different occasions), as well as a Civil District Judge, Josefina Rendon, a Democrat, has more than 30 years of experience on the bench. If there is anyone who would have even more experience in the courthouse than Wood, it might just be Rendon.

In addition to her tremendous experience, Rendon also strikes us as the right choice on those same contentious issues. While in office as a Civil District Judge, her courtroom was a model of ethical behavior, among other praises. She has also pledged to seek out mediation with more vigor and work toward educational goals in the community. Both of which are admirable aspirations worthy of our support.

Accordingly, this board endorses Josefina Rendon for County Probate Court #2.

We do not often go out of our way to speak ill of a public servant. Thus, in most of these contentious judicial races, we will have good things to say even about the candidate we choose not to endorse. Unfortunately, this race is simply not one of them. Judge Rory Olsen, a Republican, seeking his fifth term on the bench, has morphed into the epitome of what is referred to in courtroom politics as “black robe syndrome.” Rude, abrasive and petty with counsel —  especially those he may have a political disagreement therewith — all too often, Olsen has figuratively transformed his courtroom into a personal fiefdom. By losing the respect of those we must practice law with, Olsen has lost much of his legitimacy as a judge.

His Democratic opponent, on the other hand, Jerry Simoneaux, is a true breath of fresh air. A longtime probate attorney, Simoneaux has many years of experience as both an attorney in private practice and as staffing attorney for a Probate Court. With valuable experience on both the inside and the outside oft he process, we have no doubt that Simoneaux would be ready to lead on day one. Further, we have every reason to believe that Simoneaux would otherwise be an ethical, compassionate and intellectual jurist. He’s beyond the shadow of a doubt the right choice.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jerry Simoneaux for County Probate Court #3.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority of the voting board.

Council update 10/8


A few weeks ago, I noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman were pondering pushing through a ban on types of synthetic marijuana. Today, they introduced the item to the City Council and it passed unanimously. Whereas pertinent State law only disallows the specific chemical makeup typically found in the fake cannabis, the new City law is more all-encompassing. Instead of targeting the compound, it goes after the way it is “marketed and labeled.” That’s good, but I’m concerned it might open up the law to some court challenges.

Synthetic marijuana, unlike it’s honest counterpart, has some serious health risks. Despite the name, there are few similarities in either the high you get or the health risks presented. Unlike the mellowness and avoidance of overdoses hailed as hallmarks of cannabis, the effects of synthetic marijuana are far more similar to that of amphetamines. Lasting brain damage can occur. Forbes Magazine has an article that explains the plethora of individuals who have fatally overdosed on the substance. Perhaps the most compelling reason for the legalization of marijuana is that, since the beginning of time, zero people have fatally OD-ed on it. Obviously, the same is not true with the synthetic substances, prompting a rationale for prohibiting its use even when he are liberalizing drug laws in other ways.

“It is an epidemic, it is the fastest growing drug of choice across the United States and it is many, many, many times more potent than natural marijuana and, in fact, it has no relation to marijuana other than it stimulates some of the same receptors in the body,” Parker told the Chronicle. “It can cause stupor, but it can also cause aggression and agitation, and it’s causing a lot of concern across the community.”

Otherwise, as the Houston Chronicle also notes, most of the buzz surrounding City Hall today involved numerous proposals for amending the City Charter. The four specific changes floated, which could see a ballot — if at all — either next May or next November, are as follows: lifting the revenue cap on property taxes, amending term limit rules, allowing secret meetings of the Council and allowing a gaggle of Councilmembers to propose agenda items.

The revenue cap is an issue that came up over the summer but has predominantly fallen out of the news recently. At issue is a decade-old, voter-approved ceiling on the amount of property taxes raised. Simply put, despite controls of growth and inflation, it simply has not kept up. Because of the cap, rates for homeowners will effectively fall in the coming years –which is indubitably a good thing. But the city will be constrained and will, even in a good economy, be compelled to return to slashing services. It’s a lose-lose proposition, and one that will be bitterly hard to fight. All in all, I think the cap should be lifted, but it’s hard to imagine a majority of the low-turnout municipal electorate agreeing.

Next is the oft-repeated proposal to amend term limit laws. Currently, the Mayor, City Controller and City Council are all limited by three two-year terms. The proposal touted by the Mayor would change this to two four-year terms; I don’t know how it would affect incumbent officeholders, and how many more years they could serve if the proposal is adopted.

Now, most of the arguments in support of term limit reform fall on deaf ears for me. While I’m ambivalent about the whole idea of limiting how many terms a legislator (which a City Councilmember effectively is) can serve, I am a vociferous advocate of frequent elections. The proposal would quite literally make these officeholders accountable to the public half as often, breaking from the tradition set by the lower House of both Congress and the State Legislature. While advocates of it may whine about the stresses put on politicians, I simply do not give a care. Their concerns are subservient to the concerns of their constituents.

Particularly with the increasingly erratic electorate that selects members of the City Council, obstructive Councilmembers are becoming more and more frequent. Former City Councilmembers Helena Brown (R-District A) and Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) are two sterling examples of this phenomenon. If they were elected under Parker’s proposal, they would still be around doing all that they did at Council meetings. Need I say more?

Third, a proposal has been floated to allow the Houston City Council to meet more in private. Parker and Feldman, I recall, made a similar push a few years ago, but received criticism from the Councilmembers. The two now-former CMs who opposed the strongest, however, Al Hoang (R-District F) and James Rodriguez (D-District I), are no longer on the Council. I have always been bitterly opposed to closed-door sessions such as these, in principle as well as practice. When my father ran for the City Council last year, I even encouraged him to record an advertisement deriding the proposal.

Last, but certainly not least, is a proposal by City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) to allow for a coalition of at least six Councilmembers to proposal agenda items. Currently, only the Mayor can make proposals on the agenda. To this, the Mayor appeared absolutely opposed; I can’t say I’m surprised, she has acted almost imperial unilateral with her power recently.

A few months ago, when I spoke to former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral contender for 2015, he also expressed support for allowing the Council to influence the agenda. All in all, I tend to think individual Councilmembers should be able to introduce items, but I suppose that just goes against the spirit of the strong-Mayor system.

What do you think about this proposals? How about the synthetic pot ban?