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April 1st, 2021:

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

Is it time to pay jurors more?

Not yet, but maybe soon.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and her colleagues on Commissioners Court declined to support a proposal to increase pay for jurors and instead referred the idea for more study.

District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, a Democrat, pitched the idea of hiking juror pay from $6 to $50 for the first day of service and from $40 to $80 for any subsequent days. The hike would make Harris County jurors the highest-paid in Texas.

Burgess’s office had commissioned a study that found residents, especially people of color, said they would be more likely to show up for jury duty when summoned if the pay was higher. He proposal also included free parking for jurors.

The liberal majority that controls Commissioners Court was unconvinced. Hidalgo said she supported paying jurors more, but said Burgess had not produced any evidence showing that her proposal would help make Harris County juries more diverse. She questioned the accuracy of the district clerk’s study, which was performed by a third party.

“That’s one survey of Harris County, which is not clear to what extent the results are statistically significant, or to the extent the sample is representative,” Hidalgo said.

Budget Officer David Berry, who reports to Commissioners Court, said his office had reviewed Burgess’s proposal but did not endorse it.

[…]

Several community leaders, including from the Super Neighborhood Alliance and Mi Familia Vota, spoke in support of the pay increase. Burgess said if court members were skeptical, they could simply revert to the old system at the end of the fiscal year if it did not produce results.

She said the cost of the increases, estimated at $1.8 million in the current fiscal year, would be cheaper now because courts are holding fewer trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The judges have signed on in support of it. The community civic leaders say it’s the only way you’re going to get the lower socioeconomic people to appear for jury duty,” Burgess said. “We have discussed this for two years and now is the time to implement it.”

Here’s the Monday story, which previewed the item before Commissioners Court. I haven’t seen the study Burgess presented, so I can’t comment on its data. Burgess’ proposal would make the Harris County courts pay a bit more than the federal courts do for jury duty. I think this is the right direction and it doesn’t cost that much, but if Commissioners Court wants to take 30 days and review it before deciding what to do, fine. I hope that they do choose to take this up afterwards. The Press has more.

A bit of business pushback against voter suppression

It’s a start, but much more is needed.

A group of 72 Black business leaders are calling on companies to publicly oppose a series of bills being advanced by Republicans in at least 43 states that could dramatically curb access to the ballot box.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Black corporate executives are rallying around a letter that pushes back on a Georgia law that voting rights advocates have said will make it harder for Black people to vote.

“There is no middle ground here,” Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express and one of the letter’s organizers told the Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

The letter — which urges corporate America to publicly oppose new laws that would restrict the rights of voters — comes after major Atlanta-based corporations, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, failed to formally condemn the bills restricting voting rights.

The letter’s powerhouse group of signers include Roger Ferguson Jr., CEO of TIAA; Mellody Hobson and John Rogers Jr., the co-chief executives of Ariel Investments; Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners; and Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who is running for New York City Mayor.

Also among the letter’s long list of supporters were Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner, and Tony West, the chief legal officer at Uber.

[…]

While voting rights and advocacy groups, including the ACLU and NAACP, have filed a series of lawsuits against the bill in the wake of its passage, a majority of corporations have remained largely mum on the legislation.

Delta Air Lines CEO came forward and issued a memo on Wednesday calling the final bill “unacceptable,” suggesting that it hinged on the premise of former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election.

The group of executives stopped short of calling out specific companies for their inaction, but are asking big corporations to dedicate resources to  fighting voting rights restrictions.

The executives are hoping that big companies will help short circuit dozens of similar bills in other states from being signed into law.

Like Texas, for example. Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has sounded the alarm and called for the business community to get involved as well. I unfortunately think it’s already too late – remember, when there was a lot of business resistance to the bathroom bill in 2017 (which the likes of Dan Patrick viewed with contempt), it was underway well before the session began. We’re already pretty far into the process, and there hasn’t been a peep in Texas as yet, other than some progressive groups taking out ads urging businesses to get involved, which is still a couple of steps away from meaningful action. Things are starting to move in Georgia, but of course that’s after their heinous bill has been signed into law. Sometimes it just takes that much longer for the forces that oppose evil to get its act together. It’s still worth the effort, but time is fast running out.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 29

The Texas Progressive Alliance is the least fungible token ever as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Will there be any criminal complaints filed against Deshaun Watson?

Maybe? It all depends on what Tony Buzbee means, and Lord only knows about that.

In his latest Instagram post about the sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Tuesday that he plans to take evidence of the assaults to an investigating agency outside the Houston Police Department.

Buzbee has filed 19 lawsuits on behalf of women who said Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021.

In Buzbee’s post, published around 9 p.m., the attorney said he was initially reluctant to provide information about the alleged crimes, citing his 2019 mayoral bid in which he called for then-Police Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation.

Acevedo recently took a job as police chief of the Miami Police Department. Buzbee, however, said he has since discovered that Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has a son “who is on of (sic) the exclusive Command Staff of HPD.”

“I am not saying in any way that Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Mr. Hardin, has a son who has a position that would compromise HPD and its investigation,” Buzbee wrote. “I support his service, along with all Houston police officers—I think the rank and file know that. But, I am saying that me and my clients will go elsewhere to provide our evidence to investigative authorities. Stand by.”

Buzbee said his legal team has been “roundly criticized” for not filing formal complaints with the Houston Police Department. He said the team has “provided info to other organizations” but did not elaborate in the post.

What “other organizations” might those be? Who knows. I’m not going to try to interpret the musings from Tony Buzbee’s galaxy brain. He’s got a strategy and he’s clearly got evidence to back him up – see Sean Pendergast’s analysis of the five most damaging allegations against Watson for an appraisal of that – and he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. At some point, we’ll see what the endgame that Buzbee has in mind is. In the meantime, the lawsuit count is up to 21. And as of Wednesday, we now have this.

In a concerted attempt to paint Watson in a more favorable light, Watson’s defense released statements Wednesday from 18 women who “are deeply troubled by the accusations” made against Watson and who believe the allegations are “wholly inconsistent with their experiences with him and who they believe him to be.” All 18 women who released statements Wednesday supporting Watson made their identities public.

Watson’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin said these women who have spoken out on Watson’s behalf have collectively worked with the Texans star “more than 130 times over the past five years.”

“These statements show the other side to this story that has been so lacking in the flurry of anonymous complaints filed by opposing counsel,” Hardin said. It’s the most vigorous attempt from Hardin yet to defend Watson, and comes after Hardin claimed last week that at least one of Watson’s accusers had privately attempted to blackmail the quarterback into paying her to keep quiet about what happened during their massage appointment.

Several therapists are quoted, and you can go read what they have to say if you wish. I get where this is coming from – whatever ultimately happens with the allegations and lawsuits, Watson’s reputation has taken a big hit, so some of this is an attempt to mitigate that damage – but the old-school “well, he never did anything untoward around me” defense is, at best, not on point. I would hope by now that we have internalized the idea that a person can behave differently in different contexts and around different people. It’s dangerously close to victim-blaming, and that’s a road we should want to avoid.