Texpatriate endorses for Court of Criminal Appeals

Last month, this board turned a few heads when we advocated for the abolition of the death penalty. We feel, somewhat strongly, that it is an outdated and barbaric procedure, applied arbitrarily and capriciously. That it is a blight to our state and the constitutional liberties it ostensibly protects. Most of all, we feel that it is just an excessively cruel practice to inflict in this day and age.

With all that said, we are faced with a strange choice when deciding who to endorse in the three races for the Court of Criminal Appeals. As the court of last resort in Texas for all criminal cases, the court has broad range over a variety of causes, but seldom do any receive more attention than capital punishment. Whereas other disputes must go through the intermediate appellate body, the Court of Appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals (yes, this is confusing, the names are all very similar) is required by law to hear appeals on cases involving the death penalty. Most of the time, the court unfortunately serves as a rubber stamp for zealous prosecutors. In the past, they have even gone so far as to allow an execution to go forward despite reasonable evidence that the condemnation should be stayed.

Thus, we were happy to see three Justices of this court stand aside ahead of this election. All three seats up this year feature open races. In addition to the three Republicans, the Democrats pitifully managed to field one candidate. All four support the indefensible procedure of capital punishment. In addition to these candidates are three Libertarians and two Greens. But we are not convinced any of these fringe candidates hold the legal acumen necessary to sit as a Judge on this high court.

Left with these realities, we judged (pun intended) the candidates based on their experience and qualifications. Accordingly, notwithstanding our deep disagreement on invaluable policy, we endorse the three Republicans.

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3
One may wonder what the current indictment of Governor Rick Perry has to do with this race, but the two are actually quite interconnected. Bert Richardson, the Republican candidate for Place 3 on the Court of Criminal Appeals, is the senior Judge currently overseeing Perry’s two pending felony indictments. Oddly enough, Richardson’s involvement in that case has garnered him significantly more media attention than his current Statewide race.

As the Texas Tribune noted, observers on both sides of the political spectrum have described Richardson as a “thoughtful” and “fair” jurist. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have nothing but adulation for his style of Judging. Simply put, when he is on the bench, politics and ideology are checked at the door. A Criminal District Judge who represented Bexar County for ten years, Richardson knows all too well the deleterious affects of partisanship running roughshod over the judiciary. He was the victim of a partisan sweep himself when a less-qualified Democrat defeated him in 2008.

Richardson’s Democratic opponent, John Granberg, is also a capable attorney. And while his lack of experience in judicial office doesn’t necessary concern us, we simply think Richardson is better suited for the job. Given that the we disagree with both of them over our main policy priority, we will gladly defer to the candidate with the sterling qualifications and credentials. Still, when it comes to the death penalty, we have some hope that Richardson can serve as a voice of reason. He appears rather reasonable regarding upcoming issues, such as DNA testing and judicial interpretation of the Michael Morton Act.

All in all, we have every reason to believe that Richardson will serve as a honorable Judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Accordingly, this board endorses him for Place 3 of the Court.

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4
Earlier this month, the Court of Criminal struck down the State’s law against improper photography. In an unnecessarily expansive holding, the court ruled 8-1 to protect most forms of lecherous photography in public places as protected symbolic speech under the 1st Amendment. We disagree with the ruling not only because the intent could have been accomplished significantly narrower, but because it does not take under consideration the protection of some of society’s most vulnerable. Surely, there could be a better solution?

Oddly enough, the brouhaha that inevitably erupted regarding this ruling reminded us of the credentials of Kevin Yeary, the Republican candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4. In a long and illustrative career as a appellate prosecutor, Yeary was the driving force behind defending the Texas Telephone Harassment statute from a similar first amendment challenge. Although the Court of Appeals originally struck down the law, it was later reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Although candidates like Yeary are often prevented by ethics rules from publicly rebuking decisions such as the Improper Photography one, we confidently feel that his unique perspective would have allowed him to see the case differently.

Yeary is a good lawyer, with an honorable resume as a prosecutor. We have some concerns that, like many others, his prosecutor’s cap would follow him too closely onto the bench. And we are obviously disappointed to see yet another vehement advocate for the death penalty. All this being said, Yeary has no Democratic opponent. His only opposition is in the form of unqualified, unknown third parties. Given these choices, we think that Yeary is a very easy choice.

Accordingly, this board endorses Kevin Yeary for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4.

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9
David Newell, a longtime appellate prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office, is uniquely qualified against his opponents to look out against mismanagement and miscarriages of justice. Indeed, we think his impressive career would allow him to be a good judge on the high court. A down-to-earth, affable personality, we think Newell’s greatest asset may be the way he approaches serious endeavors such as his run for office. We have every reason to believe he’ll take the same attitude to the court if elected.

Obviously, we do have some misgivings about his candidacy. An emphatic defender of capital punishment, we sharply disagree. His website also contains an inappropriately lengthy section on his religious faith, juxtaposed immediately next to one on his “judicial philosophy.” In our society, where –as Thomas Jefferson once proscribed– there should be a wall erected between the church and the state, the occurrence is slightly troubling.

But Newell’s judicial philosophy and his history warrant support, especially in light of him lacking any serious competitors. Facing only token opposition, his endorsement is an easy one. But we have hope that Newell will make a good judge.

Accordingly, this board endorses David Newell for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9.

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.

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Texpatriate endorses in SD17

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State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Harris County) was first elected in a December 2008 special election, succeeding the longtime Senator, Kyle Janek, who had just been selected to run the State’s Health and Human Services program. The longtime prosecutor had originally been elected within Harris County as a Criminal District Judge, before being elected to represent the strangely gerrymandered district, which stretches from inside-the-loop Houston to the gulf coast, and once went all the way to the Louisiana border.

Unfortunately, be it in her many years on the bench or her three sessions in the State Legislature, Huffman has apparently never shed her mindset as a prosecutor. This became all too evident early last year, when Huffman butted heads with colleagues at an important Criminal Justice Committee meeting. Huffman repeatedly insensitively interrogated victims of wrongful imprisonment, and was a driving factor behind the death of a bill to create an Innocence Commission in Texas. She also grandstanded at one time against the venerated “Michael Morton Act,” which has been lauded by both sides of the aisle as an effective tool to prevent indefensible miscarriages of justice. But, to Huffman, still in the prosecutorial mentality, the Texas criminal justice system is infallible and she’ll have no part of its denigration.

These actions landed her a spot on Texas Monthly‘s list of WORST SENATORS; they called the acts in questions “Behavior Unbecoming of a Senator.” It also caused her to receive a similar dishonor from Texpatriate. Perhaps, as this board opined back last June, it is –as Corey Session famously testified in one of the innocence commission hearings– time for Huffman to find another job.

In fact, it is not just Huffman’s atrocious record on criminal justice matters that we take issue with. She stood idly by last summer when the Senate approve draconian anti-abortion restrictions, designed to shutter most of the State’s clinics and force women seeking a constitutionally-protected right to either jump state lines or retreat into the back alley. She even voted against an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that reiterated the role of the State to provide free breakfasts to impoverished children. We guess, in Huffman’s world, poor kids should just go hungry.

Thankfully, unlike her easy re-election in 2012, Huffman faces serious opposition this year. Rita Lucido, an attorney from the Houston area, is the Democratic candidate for the position. A longtime activist in the politics of the locale, this board thoroughly believes that Lucido will be qualified and ready on day 1 to take over the complex and intense responsibilities of being a State Senator.

She understands the criminal justice system, flawed as it may be, and its pressing need for reform. She was also on the board of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, a position that we believe will give her valuable insights.

The voters of Senate District 17 have a fairly easy choice to make, given the contentious tenure of the incumbent, Huffman. Either they can stick with her for another term, complete with her complacency with the criminal justice system and philosophy against helping the underprivileged. Or, they can choose to repudiate those ideas. For us, the choice is clear.

Accordingly, this board endorse Rita Lucido for the State Senate, District 17.

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 opinion of the voting board.

Abbott, Davis on the death penalty

The Houston Chronicle reports that new questions have arisen in the Texas gubernatorial election over the continued use of the death penalty in the State. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate, has slammed State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate, for allegedly too liberal views on capital punishment.

Specifically, Abbott points to a move Davis made in 2000, while a member of the Fort Worth City Council, to support a non-binding resolution urging a moratorium on the death penalty. When reached for comment, Davis reiterated her support for the positions that she espoused at the time, but noted that her concerns have all been mollified. Among them were concerns over innocence with the introduction of DNA testing, as well as opposition to executing those who committed their crimes as juveniles and the developmentally disabled. Since that time, to Davis’ credit, much as changed. The Supreme Court ruled on a series of landmark decisions —Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 and Roper v. Simmons in 2005– that prohibited the execution of those two respective categories of offenders. Furthermore, even Texas has made strides in recent sessions to mitigate the damage done by wrongful imprisonment. The Michael Morton Act, passed last year by the Legislature, is the obvious recent example.

Back to Abbott, he has harshly derided Davis for allegedly being somewhat “soft-on-crime” and an overall opponent of the death penalty. Davis, for her part, has fired back by claiming that she is –and always has been– a steadfast supporter of capital punishment, and would gleefully preside over it if elected Governor. In fact, she even touted her record voting for an expansion of the penalty –making it applicable to those who murder young children.

Another one of Abbott’s talking points is that the Texas Democratic Party, in its official platform, calls for the abolition of the death penalty. This much is true, but Abbott of all people should know the dangers of making such a claim. The Texas Republican Party’s platform is seriously riddled with heinous provisions, such as the endorsement of gay repair therapy, or urging the “rescinding of no-fault divorce.” In fact, last year at the Tribune festival, I pointedly asked Abbott if he supported repealing the entirety of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as his party’s platform supported. He said no. There’s nothing wrong with Abbott disagreeing with the crazy points in his platform, but that means there is also nothing wrong with Davis disagreeing with her party’s platform too.

I think the greater point here is over a severe political issue, and Davis’ reluctance to stand against a truly awful travesty. There is something to be said about not running too far to the left in a State as conservative as Texas, but not with this issue. Most people do not really care about the issue enough for it to be a wedge. If one is truly a zealous death penalty proponent, there are likely other confounding variables that would keep the individual far, far away from the Democratic Party (racism, for one).

The death penalty is immoral in every circumstance. Killing someone who is not presenting a danger to you (physical or existential) is wrong…that’s it. Hopefully, Davis can recognize that. Unlike every other domestic political issue, this involves life and death.

Lege update 5/13

Full Disclosure!
The Tribune reports that the “Campaign Disclosure bill,” which passed the Senate before they could change their minds, is now heading towards passage in the lower chamber, possibly without amendments. As the article puts it, “SB 346, by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would force tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits that fall under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code — the part that oversees groups involved in “social welfare” — to disclose their donors.”

This was one of those classic cases of legislators using their consciences to do something right, and then the right-wing-lobbying organization forcing a change of opinion. I’m quite glad that the House has enough spunk to take up this measure even in the face of opposition. About 20 Republicans are needed to pass the current version, if amendments are forced, then the legislation is dead. It is sort of like Obamacare, where the House of Representatives HAD to pass that garbage from the Senate, because the composition of the Senate had changed such that no more reform legislation would be getting out alive.

Morton
Next, the Chron & Trib report on the so-called “Michael Morton Bill” passing the House of Representatives. The bill, SB1611, would extend the “open door” policy of file sharing between prosecution and defense across the entire State. From what I understand, the policy of state hitherto was to leave the decision of sharing such evidence was left to the counties (Harris County had such a policy). However, Williamson County, where Michael Morton was wrongly convicted of capital murder, did not have the policy. SB825, a companion bill by John Whitmire, would provide for public sanctions for DAs who intentionally bury evidence, like in the Morton case. It would also clarify the four-year statute of limitations against prosecutors for such acts. Under current law, the four years begin at the date of the alleged crime, whereas SB825 would begin the four years “at the time a wrongfully convicted defendant is released from prison.”

This is a good step taking this State into the civilized world, for lack of a better term. The discrepancy between Harris County and some our neighbors was, well, embarrassing. As the Senate has already passed this legislation unanimously, if the final third reading passes in the House again without objection, and the Governor signs it, it will take effect immediately.

Regents
The Chron & Trib also have articles about a recent bill passed by the House to tweak the power of regents. Don’t worry, in a good way. The bill changes the terms for regents, so that every term ends in February of an odd-numbered year–when the legislature is in session. It would also limit the ability of recess-appointed regents to vote in budgetary matters (recess appointments would persist in the case of unexpected vacancies). Finally, the measure would prevent regents from firing a university President (ahem…Bill Powers) without the consent and approval of the chancellor of the school. All of these are good, solid, quality regulations.

The bill, SB15, passed the Senate last month 29-2. Today, the bill passed its Second Reading (only 5 legislators were marked in opposition–all Tea Partiers). No idea on how Perry will view this bill, which is a thinly-veiled attempt to limit his power. If the bill isn’t passed in time, his pocket veto could kill this nearly unanimous legislation.

Miller compliance
The Tribune reports on a bill being discussed in a House Panel, seemingly after the deadline, to help update Texas’ penal code vis-a-vis juveniles after the recent Miller v. Alabama decision by the Supreme Court. The decision declared that mandatory sentences of life-without-parole for juveniles (17 and below) were unconstitutional. However, all those tried for capital murder as adults in Texas face mandatory sentencing of either life-without-parole or death. SB187, by Joan Huffman, would allow juveniles still charged as adults to receive a sentence of life, with parole eligibility after forty years. I’m curious to know how this works with the “2/3 of your sentence if you used a gun” rule. What a stupid rule from the Democrat years, but I digress.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously not too long ago, and passed the House Criminal Justice Committee unanimously this evening.

Senate passes more stuff

There has been some movement on quite a few different bills recently. First, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed what I call the Romeo & Romeo Bill, which equalizes exceptions to the age of consent for close-age relationships in both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Second, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to clarify and expand the ability of defense attorneys to have access to DA’s files on their clients. Finally, just today, the Senate (roll call unavailable at the moment) passed a bill to drug test applicants for unemployment insurance. I’ll talk about each a little bit:

Romeo & Romeo
Statesman reports that the Criminal Justice Committee voted 4-1 to advance the bill, SB 1316, to the whole Senate. The committee, which is inexplicably chaired by a Democrat (Whitmire), was plagued by many absences that day. Out of the eight committee members, only five bothered to show up. Of the five voting for the bill, only one was a Republican. Essentially, the problem the bill attempts to alleviate is that while the age of consent is 17, there are many exceptions  These are called “Romeo & Juliet exceptions,” say that if a 16 year old girl has sex with a 17 year old boy, or any type of scenario like that up to three years difference, no statutory rape would be committed. However, the exception only applies to heterosexual couples. This means one boy on his 17th birthday has sex with his boyfriend, who is 16 years and 10 months old, the 17 year old would be a sex offender. Yeah, it’s THAT screwed up.

Anyways, I am surprised this archaic regulation hasn’t been struck by a federal judge yet. But the bill is receiving from blow-back from the Religious Right. The Statesman article interviews an evangelical woman who was livid at the prospect of any sort of rights or equality for the dreaded homos [sarcasm]. Her two quotes were “can’t believe this is being discussed at our Capitol, where normal Texans are in control” and “The gay liberal agenda is still alive up here, and this bill proves it, we’ll be starting a campaign of prayer and phone calls to stop this one in its tracks” [not sarcasm]. And she’s not alone. Ugh.

Michael Morton
The Dallas Morning News reports that the Senate voted unanimously to clarify the right of defense attorneys to access DA’s files in their clients. The impetus for this act comes from Michael Morton, a Texan convicted of murder and only exonerated recently. His attorneys claim the reason for his wrongful conviction was the DA intentionally burying evidence. This bill has been a pet project of Senator Ellis.

Drug Testing UI too
Just one day after the Senate voted to drug test welfare, they have voted to do the same thing with unemployment insurance. The Trib reports the passage of Tommy Williams’ SB21, although it says nothing about its unanimity, meaning probably at least a few Dems opposed the measure. Wendy Davis successfully got an amendment into the legislation that allows applicants to appeal drug test positives, and Kirk Watson put in an amendment that allows violators to continue receiving benefits if they enroll in a treatment program. Both of those things make it a little better, but I still don’t see the point in doing someone in the name of “fiscal responsibility” when we don’t save any money on it. I’ll update this later to reflect the roll call. Dos Centavos has more.