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Grand jury reform bill in trouble

Not good.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Six weeks after sailing through the Texas Senate, efforts to reform the state’s controversial grand jury selection system have stalled in the House.

A closely watched bill to end the “pick-a-pal” system suffered an unexpected setback late Monday when the lawmaker carrying the bill in the House weakened it and then withdrew the measure altogether amid opposition from a Brazoria County judge.

The moves transformed the proposal from a political sure-shot to a long-shot.

“To say I’m totally disappointed at what happened in the House is an understatement,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the sponsor of the measure in the upper chamber. Whitmire vowed to redouble his push for what he called potentially the most important legislation in this year’s session. “This bill is clearly too important to let it not pass.”

[…]

On Monday, Republican Rep. Ed Thompson of Pearland rallied opposition to the measure on the House floor, citing the feelings of a judge in his district.

“He said, ‘we have this system, we know it and it’s working well,'” Thompson said in an interview.

Sensing the risk of defeat, bill sponsor Harold Dutton, D-Houston, put forward an amendment. The compromise would allow judges to continue to use the “pick-a-pal” system if they came up with a written justification.

The change also made sense, he said later in an interview, because of the importance of flexibility in some rare cases.

Still, Thompson moved to amend the bill to make it apply only to Harris and Dallas counties. On a 73-69 vote, he won.

While supporters managed to push through yet another amendment to make it apply to a few other large counties, Dutton at that point decided to voluntarily withdraw the bill, postponing debate.

“I just don’t think it makes good policy to apply different laws to different counties in the criminal justice system,” Dutton explained afterward.

Dutton chalked up the setback to a “unique set of circumstances,” with several amendments flying around and some members not understanding what they were voting on.

He said he soon would bring up the Senate version of the bill. Because it is cleaner, he said, he was optimistic he could find a few votes to get it through.

“I’ll twist some arms if I have to,” Dutton said.

See here for some background. I’ve got to say, I don’t understand the reluctance, and I’m more than a little boggled to see an unnamed judge in Brazoria County wielding that much influence. Maybe this was a matter of some members not understanding the issue, but geez, it’s not like this came out of nowhere. It’s been a hot topic for months. Can we pay a little more attention to issues that matter, please? Grits has more.

UPDATE: This version of the Chron story, plus Lisa Falkenberg’s column identify the judge in question as Patrick Sebesta.

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