John Whitmire’s primary opponent

John Whitmire, meet Damian LaCroix.

About six weeks ago, the Editorial Board published a list of Best/Worst Legislators. Of the six members gracing our “worst” list, only one was a Democrat: John Whitmire. We listed many reasons why Sen. Whitmire deserved such a designation, and closed with “this board finds that perhaps 32 years is enough for Sen. Whitmire.” It looks like someone is now trying to make that happen.

Recently, I came across the website of Damian LaCroix. More significantly, I found it by coming across a Facebook notification following Representative Harold Dutton “liking” of his page (though, to be fair, Dutton may like pages for reference rather than endorsement, as I do). LaCroix is an attorney now seeking to unseat John Whitmire, the Dean of the Senate, in the 2014 Democratic Primary.

A little bit of background on LaCroix will reveal he previously ran for Judge (County Civil Court at Law No. 2) in 2010, but lost horribly in the primary. Whitmire, for his part, ran unopposed in the primary elections of 2012, 2010, 2006, 2002 and 2000. His primary election histories before then are a little murkier, as the County Clerk does not have online records thereof and I was either not born or an infant at that time.

Reading over LaCroix’s website, I see no reference of the incumbent Senator. Instead, LaCroix simply lists broad priorities for the district reminiscent of an open seat. Like I have said countless times before, when a candidate runs against an incumbent in a primary or non-partisan election, she or he has a burden to prove why one should vote against the incumbent.

I wasn’t really paying attention to Judicial Races back in 2010, so I had never really heard much about LaCroix. Reading his biography, I am eager to know his political positions on a variety of issues. He went to A&M for undergraduate and SMU for Law School, so he did not attend especially liberal institutions of higher education. Very curious to know if he goes after Whitmire from the left or the right.

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House passes Miller compliance

I have no earthly idea why I am spending so much time on this issue, but I seem to be devoting a fair chunk of time to any and all movement going on in the Special Session.

Just three days ago, shortly after the Senate had passed a bill to substitute the mandatory life-without-parole punishment for 17 year-old capital murderers with 40 years (life with parole), I noted that the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee had unanimously passed the legislation.

As I had predicted, the House offered up and passed some amendments to the Senate’s bill. Accordingly, the bill still must return to a Conference Committee. Although I noted that Rep. Bryan Hughes (yes, the same Hughes who led the Christian Conservative for Speaker conundrum) had proposed an alternative bill that would have allowed juries to see and hear mitigating evidence and arguments, and given them the opportunity to place a sentence as light as 25 years. After pressure, the alternate bill was pulled.

The only amendment that got through on the bill, SB 23, actually put the option of life-without-parole back on the table. Simply put, it gave the jury two options: life-without parole or life-with-parole (40 years). Forty years, to be fair, often times is a death sentence, but if one is 17, it usually is not.

Editor’s note: Being incarcerated from ages 17-57 constitutes the effective lifetime imprisonment of the worthwhile years of your life. While most individuals begin winding down their occupations and the like at that time, these individuals would be just getting out of prison with little to no skills or education. 

The amendment was offered up by Matt Schaefer (R-Smith County), although I cannot find a roll call on it. A point of humor, Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, had to offer up an amendment to Rep. Schaefer’s bill that essentially proofread it and corrected the numerous typos therein. For example, Rep. Schaefer used the phrase “capitol felony.” Yikes, and this guy leads our State?

Anyways, the bill ended up passing 110-28. All the dissenters were Democrats, and they included all the usual suspects. It appeared to me that the strongest opponent was Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Harris County). Dutton railed on and on about how the bill is unconstitutional since it still involves both mandatory sentences and life-with-parole. For the record, the Supreme Court case that caused this issue to be risen in the first place, Miller v. Alabama, did not prohibit either of these things. It only prohibited a mandatory sentence of life-without-parole.

While this bill isn’t the best, it still is better than what we have now. Additionally, under current law and precedent (that’s important), this bill is not unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is currently moving towards a much more comprehensive view of the protections of the Eighth Amendment (especially pertaining to minors), so this may not be true in a few years.

 

Failed Reforms, Part I

The 83rd session was a success for some issues, no doubt. Education was one of them, Texting-while-driving was not one of them and Criminal Justice landed somewhere in the middle. While certain issues saw success, most notably the Michael Morton discovery act, the success stopped on any issues even approaching reforms our asinine drug and alcohol laws.

The Houston Press (hair balls) published a scathing report two days ago that touched upon the discrepancy in arrests for marijuana, where in this State, African-American offenders are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for cannabis offenses than White offenders. The gap is the highest in the nation. Blacks are 3 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for the offenses in Harris County, according to the Press article. Just in Houston’s backyard, Chambers County has among the worst gaps in the nation.

Perhaps some of this could have been fixed if the legislature would have taken meaningful steps towards drug law reform. HB 184, a bill first proposed by Harold Dutton, would have decriminalized the possession of under 1 oz. of marijuana. Despite passing the House’s Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on a bipartisan 6-3 vote, the legislation died on the floor of the House, and was never even given a hearing in the Senate.

As much as the good ol’ boys in the legislature may pontificate and grandstand about being fiscal conservatives, a decision to quit going after non-violent, harmless crimes (like cannabis possession) will never be given a chance so as long as our State is run by the Republican Party. And when it comes to raising revenues without raising taxes, there are some ideas so simple that you just don’t understand why they didn’t happen.

I am, of course, referring to a proposal to sell liquor on Sundays. According to a Houston Chronicle article on the topic, “$7.5 Million” in new revenues could have been raised from enacting the proposal. This bill, Senfronia Thompson’s HB 421, wasn’t even given a vote in Committee, pitiful. The 83rd session failed miserably at enacting these common sense reforms.

Statewide texting ban passes House

I got the news first hand on this one (from Rep. Gene Wu), but the Tribune has a full story on it, so I suppose you check that out too.

The State House has passed a statewide texting-while-driving ban by insufficient margins. 98-47, to be clear; a few votes shy of the supermajority required to overcome Governor Perry’s promised veto. HB63, Tom Craddick’s bill, was split along rather unorthodox lines.

Lots of Democrats voted against the measure (there is some discussion on this in greater detail below). The chief Democratic opponent was Harold Dutton. Dutton feared the law would allow for widespread racial profiling by the police under the guise of pulling someone over for violating this rule. His amendments would make the violation a secondary offense, and it was defeated.

The Tribune mentions two successful amendments. The first prohibits police officers from confiscating one’s mobile phone and the second prevents the seizure of cell-records without a warrant. No word on who proposed these or what the roll call was. I could figure it out, but I just don’t find it very important.

Finally, this bill would overrule and pre-empt local measures, including those stronger than the statewide proposal. Joe Pickett successfully got an amendment in that would exempt El Paso, which has a total cell-use ban, from the statewide proposal, which provides exceptions for “looking up numbers” and using a GPS or other map system. The bill now heads to the Senate, which, to my knowledge, still hasn’t passed this out of committee.

Part II
The roll call vote was 98-47. Of the 98 in support, 43 were Democrats and 55 were Republicans. Of the 47 in opposition, 10 were Democrats and 37 were Republicans. 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans were absent (one of them, Ryan Guillen [D-Rio Grande City], was a big proponent but his wife went into labor), and, of course, the Speaker does not vote.

The 10 Democrats voting against the bill were Lon Burnam (Fort Worth), Terry Canales (Brownsville), Joe Deshotel (Port Arthur), Harold Dutton (Houston), Naomi Gonzalez (El Paso), Roland Gutierrez (San Antonio), Eric Johnson (Dallas), Borris Miles (Houston), Senfronia Thompson (Houston) and Hubert Vo (Houston). I will most definitely remember them next year.

This actually means that the Texting ban isn’t quite as dead as we figured it to be. If Guillen is present at the next vote, the number is at 99. The other Democrat missing was Rene Oliveira (Brownsville), who is recovering from an automobile accident. The options for getting the one more vote is to get Oliveira there (assuming he is a supporter), or trying to peel off at least one Democratic holdout. My money is on Burnam, for what it’s worth.

It is worth nothing that just because all but one of the 10 Democratic holdouts is a racial minority, doesn’t mean that African-Americans or Hispanics are any less supportive of this measure. That is just the typical makeup of the House Democratic Caucus nowadays.

Dutton wants Decriminalization

The Houston Press is reporting that Harold Dutton, the longtime State Representative for District 142, is vociferously supporting a bill he introduced, that would decriminalize possessing less than 1 ounce of pot.

The exact penalty, a Class C Misdemeanor, would be roughly equivalent to that of Public Intoxication, Minor in Possession (of Alcohol) or Disorderly Conduct. Dutton claims that “Of the 70,000 cases filed on Marijuana possession in Texas, about 30,000 encompass the possession of two ounces or less.” It is worth noting that Dutton has tried this before, and the bill never even made it out of committee. Let us hope this year’s bill does not suffer the same fate.

For what it’s worth, I have been a big proponent of pot legalization for a number of years, but am always willing to take baby steps towards that goals by doing things like supporting decriminalization and medical pot. My position for why to legalize, however, is probably very different than most people my age. It is from an approach of fiscal conservatism. For example, I spent a number of weeks last year working at a Harris County Criminal Court at Law. Probably half of the cases in the court were POMs (pot possession). If you made general possession a decriminalized offense, most of these cases would never go before a court, thus freeing up money for court costs, police, prisons, etc. In addition, the police could use their precious time going after actual violent criminals.

For what it’s worth, Hair Balls got a big fact wrong. They incorrectly identified Dutton’s bill of decriminalization as HB 192, it is actually HB 184.