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Court of Criminal Appeals

We should have a full statewide slate

Nice.

Judge Gisela Triana

For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.

As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who himself won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.

Now, as the 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have over the past two decades plus proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.

“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”

In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.

[…]

Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?

Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”

That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees: “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”

I agree with Mike Baselice that judicial races do indeed do a good job of measuring partisan vote behavior. As you know, I’ve been using CCA races across the years as my point of comparison. I like judicial races at the county level even more because they are almost always straight up R-versus-D contests, but a lot of these go uncontested in counties that have strong partisan leans, so the statewides are the best overall proxy.

By that measure, 2018 was easily the most Democratic year in recent memory. The Supreme Court and CCA Democratic candidates ranged from 45.48% (in a race that included a Libertarian) to 46.83%, the best showing since Sam Houston got 45.88% in 2008 and Margaret Mirabal got 45.90% in 2002. I’d quibble slightly with the assertion that all the Dems will win or none of them will – there is some spread in these races, so if the state is basically 50-50, you could have a couple Dems sneak through while others just fall short. That’s basically what happened in Harris County judicial races in 2008 and 2012, after all. The presence or absence of third party candidates could be a factor as well, as more candidates in the race means fewer votes, and only a plurality, are needed to win. Again, this is only relevant if the state is truly purple, and the range of outcomes that include a split in the judicial races is narrow, but it could happen.

My one complaint here is that the story only names one Democratic CCA candidate, while teasing that there are many more. So I asked some questions, of reporter Emma Platoff and Patrick Svitek, reporter and proprietor of the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet of announced candidates, and now that Statewide tab is full. Here. for your perusal, are your Democratic statewide judicial candidates:

Amy Clark Meachum – Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice)
Jerry Zimmerer – Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice)

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

Kelly is a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, elected in 2018. He doesn’t appear to have an online campaign presence yet, but a search for “peter kelly texas supreme court” yielded this.

William Demond is a “constitutional rights attorney” in Houston. Elizabeth Frizell is a former County Criminal Court judge in Dallas who ran for Dallas County DA in 2018 but lost in the primary. This story in The Appeal has some information about her candidacy from that year. Dan Wood is a criminal appellate lawyer who ran for the Fifth Court of Appeals in 2012 and for CD05 in 2018.

Brandon Birmingham, the one candidate named in the story, was elected to the 292nd Criminal District Court in Dallas in 2014, re-elected in 2018.

Tina Clinton serves as Criminal District Judge Dallas County Number 1, which is a felony court. I don’t know why the nomenclature is different from the other District Courts as I had not heard of this kind of court before, but similarly-named courts exist in Tarrant and Jefferson counties as well. She was elected to this court after serving eight years as a County Criminal Court judge, and you can scroll down the 2018 election results page to see more judges like her. Steve Miears is a criminal and criminal appellate attorney from Grapevine.

And now we’re as up to date as we can be The Secretary of State is now providing candidate filing information, which tells me that as of Friday Lawrence Praeger was the only one to have formally filed. More are to follow, and I’ll keep an eye on it.

Filing period preview: Statewide

Previously: Congress. As before, I am using the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet as my primary reference.

Statewide elections are much less exciting in Presidential years in Texas, since the state offices are on the ballot in the off years. We do have a US Senate race of interest, which I think you are familiar with. Beyond that, there’s the one Railroad Commission spot (there are three Railroad Commissioners, they serve six year terms, with one slot up for election each cycle), and the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals positions. We’ll take a look at those this time around.

Railroad Commissioner: We discussed this recently. Chrysta Castañeda and Kelly Stone are in, 2016 candidate Cody Garrett is thinking about it, and I will worry about Grady Yarbrough rising like a zombie to sow chaos until the filing deadline.

Supreme Court: There are four races, thanks to a previous retirement and appointment by Greg Abbott. Three of the races are contested.

Against Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, in Position 1, we have Amy Clark Meachum, a District Court judge in Travis County first elected in 2010, and Jerry Zimmerer, a Harris County judge elected to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2018.

For Position 7 against Jeff Boyd, the candidates are Brandy Voss, an attorney and law professor from McAllen, and Staci Williams, a District Court judge from Dallas County, first elected in 2014.

Position 6 is the open seat, where Jeff Brown was replaced by Jane Bland, a former First Court of Appeals judge who was defeated in 2018. Kathy Cheng, a Houston attorney who ran for this same position in 2018, finishing with 46.3% of the vote, and Lawrence Praeger, also a Houston attorney, are the contenders.

Position 8, held by Brett Busby, is the only one that has a lone Democrat, at least so far. Gisela Triana, a longtime District Court judge in Travis County who was elected to the Third Court of Appeals in 2018.

Court of Criminal Appeals: Three positions are up, as per usual: Bert Richardson (Place 3), Kevin Yeary (Place 4), and David Newell (Place 9). There are candidates running for Place 6, except that that election may not happen this cycle. The spreadsheet only lists the Place 3 race and doesn’t mention any Dem candidates, so at this point I don’t have any knowledge to drop on you. I’m sure there are people running for these positions, but for what it’s worth the one statewide office that Dems did not challenge in 2018 was a CCA slot. I will of course keep my eyes open for this.

Next up: SBOE, State Senate, and State House. Let me know what you think.

David Temple convicted again

New trial, same result.

A Harris County jury on Tuesday convicted David Temple of murder in the 1999 death of his pregnant wife, opening the door for the former Katy-area football coach to be sent back to prison several years after an appeals court reversed his original guilty verdict because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The panel of seven men and five women handed down the decision following almost eight hours of deliberation and 18 days of witness testimony, including evidence prosecutors withheld during the initial trial and which led to the reversal. In the end, jurors convicted David Temple of murder for a second time, rejecting the defense attorneys’ claim that an alternate suspect, a teenage neighbor, fatally shot Belinda Temple.

As state District Judge Kelli Johnson read the verdict, Temple cast his face downward, sweating and suppressing tears while his family members, including his adult son, burst into a chorus of sobs.

Just feet away, siblings and friends of Belinda Temple let out audible sighs of relief, comforted that the man they have long believed killed her could be locked up once more.

[…]

Testimony in the retrial revolved around two competing timelines of events on Jan. 11, 1999, the day Belinda was found shot to death in her master bedroom closet. David Temple told authorities that he came home from a trip to the park and store with his 3-year-old son and found his wife dead amid an apparent burglary.

Prosecutors argued that the husband — who was in the throes of a secret relationship with a coworker — had executed Belinda with a close-contact shotgun wound shortly after she arrived home from a work and a trip to pick up soup for her sick child. He washed his hands, changed his clothes, and left for the store, before returning home and staging a crime scene, state attorneys said. At some point during his shopping trip, prosecutors said, he ditched the murder weapon, which was never located.

Temple’s defense lawyers contended that their client didn’t have time to murder his wife, given a “narrow window” of opportunity when they were both home alone. They argued that the killing occurred while Temple was at the store, and was carried out by a 16-year-old neighbor who had a bone to pick with Belinda, who was also his teacher at Katy High School.

The neighbor testified during the retrial, telling jurors that he skipped the last class period of the day on Jan. 11, 1999. He said that he spent much of the afternoon on a mostly fruitless quest to find marijuana, and several of his high school friends corroborated parts of his story.

See here and here for the background, and here for the rest of my blogging about this. The re-trial was due to Temple’s attorneys successfully arguing that he had not received a fair trial in 1999 because of misconduct by then-Assistant DA Kelly Siegler. Current District Attorney Kim Ogg recused her office from the do-over, with prosecutors from the Attorney General’s office handling the case. In the end, it seems the jury didn’t buy Temple’s defense. Sentencing is still to come, but I imagine he’ll be spending some more time in prison.

We return once again to the Paxton prosecutor pay fight

This is an interesting argument.

Best mugshot ever

The prosecutors appointed years ago to take Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to trial will continue to fight over their pay rate, lengthening a dispute that has already delayed the case for well over a year.

[…]

Prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer had signaled they might withdraw from the case if they could not be paid. Instead, they are now asking a Harris County judge for a private, “ex parte” hearing over their fees — a meeting that would not include Paxton’s defense team. In a filing this week, they asked Judge Robert Johnson to “issue a new order for payment of fees.”

“The Attorneys Pro Tem’s payment is now an administrative matter for the trial court to decide,” an attorney for Wice and Schaffer wrote. “The Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision provides the court with the parameters necessary for the court to use its discretion in discharging its administrative duties.”

They added that “there is no authority suggesting that an adversarial hearing regarding the payment of fees … should be held” — arguing that Paxton’s defense lawyers should not be present for the hearing.

The judge has not yet responded to the request. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment.

See here for the last update. I’m glad they waited till after the legislative session to advance this argument, as I can easily imagine a hastily-written bill to cut this off at the knees getting rammed through. I’ve no idea if this brief, let alone the assertion that there doesn’t need to be a response from Team Paxton, has any merit or has ever been tried before. But it sure isn’t boring, and I can’t wait to see how Judge Johnson rules. The DMN has more.

There’s no reason to trust the Republican study to “reform” the judicial election process

Oh, hell no.

After a punishing election for Republican judges, state leaders are set to take a long look at Texas’ often-criticized judicial selection system — a partisan election structure that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has described as “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law creating a commission to study the issue — signaling that the GOP-led Legislature could overhaul the system as soon as 2021. That move comes after Democrats killed a sweeping reform proposal that Abbott had quietly backed.

In Texas, one of just a few states that maintains a system of partisan judicial selection all the way up through its high courts, judges are at the mercy of the political winds. They are required to run as partisans but expected to rule impartially. They are forced to raise money from the same lawyers who will appear before them in court. And in their down-ballot, low-information races, their fates tend to track with the candidates at the top of the ticket.

That means political waves that sweep out of office good and bad, experienced and inexperienced judges alike. And while sweeps are perennial problems for the judiciary, 2018’s elections “set records,” said Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice.

Democrats, riding on the coattails of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, left the election with majorities on appeals courts where they had previously held zero seats. Republicans were entirely shut out of major urban counties. Voters, largely uninformed about judicial races, differentiated very little between well-funded, experienced candidates and those who had done little but throw their hats in the ring. The judiciary lost hundreds of years of experience.

“Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind,” Hecht warned lawmakers in January, exhorting them to change the system.

But reform is similarly fraught with politics. Voters don’t like having choices taken away from them, even if vanishingly few recognize judicial candidates’ names on the ballot. And any new system has to win the approval of both parties, as a two-thirds majority in each chamber is required for the constitutional amendment needed to change the system.

[…]

Texas Republicans dominate the state’s judiciary: All nine members on each of the state’s two high courts are Republicans, as are lower-court judges across much of the state. But that dominance began to wilt after last fall’s elections, particularly on intermediate courts of appeals, where Democrats now hold majorities on 7 of 14 courts.

After scores of Republican judges lost their jobs last fall, Abbott set about appointing many of them back to the bench. He also became more vocal on the issue of judicial selection reform.

Eyebrows went up in February, when he tweeted a Houston Chronicle column criticizing the partisan judicial election system. The governor commented, “We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”

Advocates began to believe this might be the year to push the issue — or at least to tee it up for a big swing in 2021. It was around that time that a group of would-be reformers — attorneys, former judges and donors — formed a non-profit organization, Citizens for Judicial Excellence in Texas, to push the issue in Austin. One lobbyist registered to represent the group at the Capitol this spring.

With powerful supporters in his ear calling for change, Abbott was also pushing the issue more quietly. In March, he met with state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Lubbock. Two days later, on the Legislature’s filing deadline, Landgraf proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overhauled the system, centralizing much of the power to pick judges in the governor’s office.

The Landgraf pitch — which ultimately stalled out for a lack of bipartisan support — would have scrapped the partisan judicial election system, replacing it with a multi-step process: gubernatorial appointment, qualifications evaluation by a non-partisan commission, Texas Senate confirmation and retention elections. Since judges tend to win retention elections, barring scandal, the proposal would effectively have allowed Abbott to appoint judges likely to serve for three four-year terms — giving Republican-appointed judges a dozen years in power even as Texas creaks toward the political center.

Landgraf’s proposal carved out small, rural — conservative — counties, where voters would still have had the opportunity to elect judges on partisan ballots, unless they voted to opt into the appointment system.

Landgraf’s pitch, blessed by Abbott, didn’t sit well with Democrats, who demanded to know why the urban centers they and their colleagues represent would be treated differently from Republican strongholds. They feared overhauling the system would mean losing the new class of Democratic judges elected in last year’s sweep — a class that brought unprecedented diversity to the bench. And they questioned whether centralizing that power in Abbott’s office might effectively give the Republicans control over the judiciary for longer than the party can hold the other two branches of government.

In April, a House committee hosted a spirited debate on the bill, then left the pitch pending. Landgraf said he wouldn’t push to advance it without bipartisan support; Democrats cheered its defeat.

First of all, no way is it acceptable to put this power in the hands of the Governor. Putting aside who the governor is now, how does that take the politics out of the process? All it does is incentivize anyone who wants to be a judge to suck up to the Governor. Sure, you could redesign things so that no one person or one party has control over the process, but any way you slice it you are granting this power to a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of people. But if this does get traction, then no way do “small rural counties” get exempted from it. If this is a good system for Harris and Dallas, it’s a good system for Loving and Deaf Smith.

But the bottom line remains that this is only ever an issue when Democrats have a good year at the ballot box. The first time Republicans started talking about changing the partisan election system was in 2008. It then got mostly dropped (except for its most ardent supporters, and I will admit that the likes of Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht continued to bang this drum at every opportunity) in the 2010 to 2014 period, only to be revived in 2016. First they ended straight ticket voting (though not in time for 2018, poor things), and now this. The goal is to install Republican judges, hopefully before Democrats can elect a majority to either of the statewide courts. Come back with a proposal that isn’t primarily about that, and then maybe we can talk. Until then, there’s no reason for any Democratic legislator to support this.

David Temple re-trial is now underway

I continue to be fascinated by this.

It’s 1999 in Katy, Texas.

A seemingly perfect couple is falling apart at the seams. David Temple, a high school football coach, is having an affair with a beautiful teacher on campus. His wife, a beloved special education instructor, is becoming anxious. She’s also eight months pregnant.

It was an act of disloyalty, David Temple’s attorneys conceded with opposing state prosecutors. The legal parties disagree, however, on the events of Jan. 11, when Belinda Temple was found shot to death in the closet of her master bedroom.

Lawyers began to reconstruct the murder of Belinda Temple for Harris County jurors on Monday, launching testimony for her husband’s second criminal trial in 12 years. Unlike the first trial, when jurors found David Temple guilty in the killing – a decision that was later overturned by an appeals court – attorneys were tasked with making the panel understand a story from another era.

“We’re going to go back in time,” David Temple’s attorney, Stanley Schneider, began his opening argument on Monday. “We’re going to hear a story of betrayal, two betrayals.”

The lawyer told jurors that while the defendant was unfaithful to his wife, law enforcement also betrayed citizens by operating with “tunnel vision” in the case, which rocked the Katy area in the early 2000s and has maintained a hold in the county ever since.

[…]

“There was only one person on this Earth who had the motive, the means and the opportunity to cause her death,” said Lisa Tanner, a state prosecutor re-trying the case in lieu of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which recused itself after the initial verdict was reversed. Investigators didn’t charge anyone with the crime at first but had questions about Temple’s account, Tanner said. The family’s dog was aggressive and made it difficult for police officers to even gain entry into the yard, making them wonder how a burglar could have made it past. The break-in also seemed staged, Tanner said, as evidenced by the location of broken glass on the floor.

Surveillance videos located Temple being where he said he was on two instances, but the videos are separated by a nearly 45-minute gap, Tanner said.

See here for the background and here for all posts. Again, I don’t have anything to add. We just don’t see many re-trials like this, especially in cases where the original prosecutors had been found to have withheld possibly exculpatory evidence. We’ll never know the answer to the questiof what might have happened if they had played by the rules back then, but we’ll see what happens now that this evidence is known to all. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

David Temple re-trial starts

The beginning of the next chapter in a long story.

For the second time in 12 years, a former Katy-area football coach is standing trial in the murder of his pregnant wife, seeking exoneration after prosecutorial misconduct caused his first conviction to be reversed.

David Temple’s return to court takes place almost 20 years after his wife’s death, which he has insisted was the result of a botched break-in at their home. The murder and trial in 2007 became drew national attention and the case has remained controversial ever since.

Jury selection began Thursday and will continue this week, with testimony due to begin next month. State District Judge Kelli Johnson, special prosecutors from the Texas Attorney General’s Office and defense attorneys are choosing from a pool of 240 potential jurors.

The amount of time that has lapsed usually benefits the defense, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston. It remains to be seen what evidence withheld from the first trial will be presented.

“We probably shouldn’t expect any surprises,” she said. “The question is how much the prosecutors’ case has degraded over time.”

See here for all the background I have on this. The case is being prosecuted by a lawyer from the Attorney General’s office, as DA Kim Ogg recused her office due to the allegations of misconduct against the office from the past. Suffice it to say that this case is a hot potato, and people have strong feelings about it and about David Temple. I’m just interested in seeing how it plays out this time around.

Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

Paxton prosecutors take their shot at a do-over

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

In a fiery filing that amounts to a legal Hail Mary, the attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton implored the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yielded “a patently absurd result.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in November that a six-figure payment originally approved for the special prosecutors was outside legal limits — a move that boosted Paxton and threatened to derail the case against him, as the prosecutors had indicated they might withdraw if they could not be paid. A month later, the prosecutors have asked the court to reconsider their decision in a crucial case “where the ‘x’ axis of justice and the ‘y’ axis of politics intersect.”

Rehearing, they argued in a filing last week, is critical for ensuring that the high court’s proceedings “appear fair to all who observe them.” [Read the filing here]

[…]

In the Dec. 21 filing, prosecutor Brian Wice wrote that the prosecutors “would never have accepted the formidable task of prosecuting the Texas Attorney General over the last three-plus years had they been able to look into the future and discern that their pay would come within a coat of paint of minimum wage.”

From the opening sentence, the 18-page filing doesn’t mince words.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, you can lawfully create and endow a defense fund to pay for an armada of top-flight legal talent that most defendants can only dream of to defend yourself against three felony offenses,” Wice wrote.

In the motion for rehearing, which includes references to Atticus Finch, Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan and the impending “Sword of Damocles,” the prosecutors implore the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yields “a patently absurd result” that would pay the special prosecutors “unconscionable” rates.

Letting the ruling stand, Wice argued, would allow any local government in Texas “to derail what it sees as an unjust prosecution by de-funding it.” And that type of funding dispute can be influenced by major political players, he suggested.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote. “While it was the Commissioners who prevailed in this Court, Paxton first recognized that the best, indeed, the only way to derail his prosecution was to de-fund it by challenging [prosecutors’] fees three years ago.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, the prosecutors are 100% right on the merits, and they lay it out with utter clarity. I maintain that the Legislature can and should fix this by making the state pick up the tab for prosecutions like this, but that won’t help here, even if we could be sure that a bill to address this would pass. We need the Court to do the right thing, which they failed to do the first time around. It’s either that or they show that they don’t care about the law when one of their own is on the sharp end of it.

Paxton prosecutors want another shot

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

The attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton indicated in a court filing this week that they aren’t giving up a long-running fight to take the state’s top lawyer to court — at least not yet.

The filing follows a Nov. 21 ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that six-figure payments to the special prosecutors were outside legal limits. The prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016, had in the past suggested that if they did not get paid, they might leave the case, which has dragged on for more than three years.

Brian Wice, one of those prosecutors, on Monday filed a document with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking more time to ask the court to rehear the case. If the court grants his request, prosecutors would have until Dec. 21 to try and convince the high court to reconsider their case. Wice declined to comment on Tuesday.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the fractured court handed down a total of six opinions, including three dissents. The all-Republican court will welcome one new member, Michelle Slaughter, in the new year.

See here for the background. I know asking for a re-hearing is a normal thing, though I have no idea how often it works. Maybe with a new judge coming on board there’s a chance of a different outcome, I don’t know. Maybe because the opinions were all over the place the justices themselves might be open to reconsidering. It can’t hurt. I just don’t expect much to change. The DMN has more.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

CCA may have killed the Paxton prosecution

Ugh. Just, ugh.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday potentially imperiled the long-delayed criminal prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, ruling that payments to special prosecutors were outside legal limits.

If they cannot get paid, the prosecutors have suggested they could withdraw from the case against Paxton, a three-year-long legal saga that has dragged on in fits and starts amid side fights like the dispute over legal fees.

In its opinion Wednesday, the state’s highest criminal court said a lower trial court was wrong last year to approve a six-figure payment to the three special prosecutors handling the Paxton case. The prosecutors’ invoice was rejected by commissioners in Collin County — Paxton’s home county — touching off the legal fight that made its way to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

“Here, the trial court exceeded its authority by issuing an order for payment of frees that is not in accordance with an approved fee schedule containing reasonable fixed rates or minimum and maximum rates,” the opinion said.

The Court of Criminal Appeals invalidated the payment and ordered the lower court to re-issue it in accordance with the fee schedule.

“While we are disappointed with the majority’s ruling and are exploring all legal options available to us, it does not alter the fact that Ken Paxton remains charged with three serious felony offenses,” the prosecutors said in a statement responding to the ruling.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have no idea what happens next. A copy of the opinion is here, and the Observer has some thoughts. Maybe the prosecutors stick it out – maybe now Collin County will agree to pay them something reasonable, now that they can dictate the terms more. Maybe they step down and some other prosecutors step in. Maybe it all goes up in flames. The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a scandal that needs to be addressed by the Lege. The possibility that Paxton may end up skating because the system as designed was not capable of finding a prosecutor for the charges against him is too gruesome to contemplate, so I’m not going to think about it any more today. Have some turkey or turkey-alternative, watch some football, and quit griping about how it’s Christmas season already. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Initial reactions: Statewide

I’m going to do a few of these “Initial reaction” posts about Tuesday’s elections as I try to make sense of all that happened. Here we go.

Let me start with a number. Two numbers, actually: 4,017,851 and 48.26%. The former is how many votes Beto O’Rourke has right now, and what his percentage of the vote was. That first number, which may still creep up a bit as there are a tiny number of precincts unreported as I write this, is the largest vote total any Texas Democrat has ever received. It’s more than 500K greater than Barack Obama in 2008, and it’s about 130K greater than Hillary Clinton in 2016. I had thought Clinton’s 3,877,868 votes were the absolute ceiling for any Dem this cycle, but I was wrong. Somehow, Beto O’Rourke built on what Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That is truly amazing.

Oh, and do note that Beto’s losing margin was 2.68 points, which was closer than all but four of the polls taken in this race – the one poll where he was tied, the one poll where he was leading, the one poll where he was trailing by one, and the one poll where he was trailing by two. It couldn’t have been easy for the pollsters to model this year’s electorate, but when they did they were generally more pessimistic about this race – though not necessarily about the state as a whole – than they should have been.

Now here are two other numbers to consider: 4,685,047 and 4,884,441. The former is what Donald Trump got in 2016, and the latter is what Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman got that same year. Those are our targets for 2020, to truly make Texas a competitive electoral battleground. We know a lot of people with no previous electoral history voted this year, and I think it’s safe to say most of them voted for Beto. We need to figure out who the people are that did vote in 2016 but not in 2018, and make sure they vote in 2020. We also need to keep registering voters like crazy, and keep engaging the voters we got to come out this year. I know everyone is sad about Beto falling short – at this writing, he trails by 2.57 percentage points, which among other things means that the polls generally did underestimate him – but we need to stay focused and work to ensuring the level he achieved is a stepping stone and not a peak.

By how much did Beto outperform the Democratic baseline? First we have to decide what the baseline was. For the executive offices, the totals are bifurcated:


Valdez     3,520,868   Collier   3,833,069
Chevalier  3,545,626   Nelson    3,870,345
Suazo      3,540,153   Olson     3,794,683
McAllen    3,586,198

One might argue that Collier and Nelson and Olson might have done better if they’d had more money. Maybe, but there was a ton of money spent in the Senate race, and it’s not clear to me what the marginal effect of another million or two might have been. It’s hard for me to imagine any of them making it over the top if Beto wasn’t at least within automatic-recount distance of Cruz. The point here is that there was significant variation in these contests. That’s one reason why I usually default to the judicial races as my benchmark for partisan strength:


Kirkland   3,820,059
Sandill    3,765,102
Cheng      3,769,290
Jackson    3,707,483
Franklin   3,723,541

Much closer, as you can see. They lost by a range of 6.55 points (Kirkland) to 8.39 points (Franklin). In 2016, the closest any statewide Democratic judicial candidate got was Dori Garza’s 13.22 point loss. Based on the 2018 vote totals, I’d say the Democratic baseline is around 3.7 to 3.8 million. Compare the judicial race vote totals from this year to 2016:


Kirkland   3,820,059   Westergren  3,378,163
Sandill    3,765,102   Garza       3,608,634
Cheng      3,769,290   Robinson    3,445,959
Jackson    3,707,483   Meyers      3,496,205
Franklin   3,723,541   Johnson     3,511,950
                       Burns       3,558,844

That’s a nice step up, though do note that in 2016 all of the statewide judicial races also had a Libertarian candidate, and all but one also had a Green, while this year only Terri Jackson had company from a third party. Still and all, I think this shows that Beto wasn’t the only Dem to build on 2016. It also suggests that Beto got on the order of 300K crossover votes, while Collier and Nelson and Olson got 100K to 150K.

I don’t have any broad conclusions to draw just yet. We built on 2016. We still have room to grow – remember, as high as the turnout was this year, beating all off years as well as 2008 and 2012, turnout as a percentage of registered voters was still less than 53% – and with the right candidates we can attract some Republican voters. We should and we must make our goal be a competitive state for the Presidential race in 2020. I’ll look at the county by county canvass later, then of course do some precinct level reporting when the dust clears a bit. In the meantime, read Chris Hooks’ analysis for more.

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

Judicial candidates are subject to strict campaign finance restrictions, making it difficult to get their names out across a state of 28 million. And they must walk a difficult line as they campaign, running as partisans without compromising their judicial impartiality.

That means judicial candidates’ fates often rest with the top of the ticket — which is perhaps why no Democrat has been elected to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1994. This year, five Democrats are vying for six seats on the state’s two high courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, respectively.

These low-information, down-ballot races are rarely competitive, but this year, as El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke draws attention to the top of the ticket in an unusually tight campaign for U.S. Senate, Democrats hope their judges can ride his coattails to the state’s highest benches.

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

“I do think to a large extent that my success will depend on how the entire ticket of my party goes,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, one of three Republican incumbents on the court up for re-election this fall. In that context, he said, he feels confident. “Of course, Beto O’Rourke’s popularity has certainly got Republicans thinking that maybe Texas is getting a little purpler. But I still feel like it’s going to be a Republican sweep.”

If anyone is poised to spoil that sweep, it’s R.K. Sandill, a long-serving Democratic district judge in Harris County who’s consistently outraised his opponent, Justice John Devine. In addition to an impressive cash-on-hand tally, an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle and victories in the Houston Bar Association and Texas Bar Association polls, Sandill faces perhaps the most controversial incumbent on the high court. Before being elected to the high court in 2012, Devine was sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Devine has also boasted publicly that he was arrested 37 times protesting outside abortion clinics.

But that history may not hurt Devine’s chances, Sandill said in an interview last week.

“It doesn’t matter who the Republican [candidate] is in a statewide office in Texas,” Sandill says, smiling but resigned across the table at a downtown Houston coffee shop. “It’s been 24 years. There’s no vulnerability. We all live and die together on the Democratic ticket.”

That’s not entirely true – there’s always some variation in the vote totals for Supreme Court and CCA justices, just as there’s variation in the vote totals for District Court judges. In 2016, Eva Guzman got 4,884,441 votes while Paul Green received 4,758,334; among Democrats, Dori Contreras Garza picked up 3,608,634 votes while Mike Westergren got 3,378,163. Didn’t make any difference then, but if we’re sufficiently close to even it becomes a live possibility that one or two Dems win while the others lose.

Beyond that, I covered some of this in my earlier post about Sharon Keller. I note that the Trib discusses the impending end of straight ticket voting, which could have a negative effect on Republican incumbent justices and possibly judges here in Harris County. I’m gonna wait and see what the data says over the next couple of cycles before I make any pronouncements on that.

“The least-discussed vulnerable Republican on the ballot”

From Grits:

Grits does not expect Beto O’Rourke to win. But if he were to pull off the upset, many other dominos could fall in succession as a result, with at least three Republican senators, Texas’ Attorney General, and potentially even the Lt. Governor at risk. Another race likely to flip if Dem turnout goes that high is Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Incumbent Sharon Keller won her primary with only 52% of the vote, and CCA races have consistently been among the lowest vote-getters over the years among Republican statewide officials. There is no Libertarian in the race, so the Democrat, Maria Jackson, should get all the anti-incumbent vote. If, on election night, the US Senate race at the top of the ticket is competitive, or heaven forbid, Beto pulls an upset, check down the ballot for this race; it may flip, too.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The basis of this idea, which Grits has advanced before, is that in past elections Republicans have tended to drop off and not vote in downballot races more than Democrats have. If that is the case, and if the top of the ticket features a close race, then it stands to reason that other statewide races would be closer, and might even flip. I made the same observation early in the 2016 cycle when the polls were more favorable to Hillary Clinton in Texas. We seem to be headed for a close race at the top of the ticket this year, so could this scenario happen?

Well, lots of things can happen, but let’s run through the caveats first. First and foremost, Republicans don’t undervote in downballot races at the same pace in off years as they do in Presidential years. Here’s how the judicial vote totals from 2014 compared to the top of the ticket:


2014

Abbott - 2,796,547
Davis - 1,835,596

Candidate         Votes   Dropoff   Drop %
==========================================
Hecht         2,757,218    39,329     1.4%
Brown         2,772,824    23,723     0.8%
Boyd          2,711,363    85,184     3.0%
Richardson    2,738,412    58,135     2.1%

Moody         1,720,343   115,253     6.3%
Meyers        1,677,478   158,118     8.6%
Benavides     1,731,031   104,565     5.7%
Granberg      1,671,921   163,375     8.9%

Maybe if the hot race that year had been more closely contested we’d see something more like what we’ve seen in Presidential years, but so far this isn’t encouraging for that hypothesis.

The other issue is that it’s clear from polling that Beto is getting some number of Republican votes. That’s great for him and it’s a part of why that race is winnable for him, but the Republicans who vote for Beto are probably going to vote for mostly Republicans downballot. The end result of that is judicial candidates who outperform the guy at the top. Like what happened in 2016:


Trump    = 4,685,047
Lehrmann = 4,807,986
Green    = 4,758,334
Guzman   = 4,884,441
Keel     = 4,790,800
Walker   = 4,782,144
Keasler  = 4,785,012

So while Trump carried Texas by nine points, these judicial candidates were winning by about 15 points. Once more, not great for this theory.

Now again, nine points isn’t that close, or at least not close enough for this scenario to be likely. (I had suggested a maximum six-point spread in 2016.) Nine points in this context is probably a half million votes, and undervoting isn’t going to cut it for making up that much ground. But if Beto is, say, within four points (or, praise Jeebus, he wins), and if the reason he’s that close is primarily due to base Democratic turnout being sky high and not anti-Cruz Republicans, then the rest of the statewide ballot becomes very interesting. I personally would bet on Ken Paxton or Sid Miller going down before one of the Supreme Court or CCA justices, but the closer we are to 50-50, the more likely that anything really can happen. You know what you need to do to make that possible.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.

Partisan statewide judicial elections upheld

I’d totally forgotten about this lawsuit.

A federal judge has rejected a race-based challenge to the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi handed the state of Texas a win Wednesday, writing that its current method for electing judges to the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals does not violate federal safeguards for voters of color.

The system does dilute the power of Hispanic voters, Ramos wrote. But it’s not clear that “race rather than partisanship” explains why Hispanic voters’ preferred candidates tend to lose at the polls.

Seven Hispanic voters and a community organization sued the state in 2016, arguing that Texas’ statewide judicial election system violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it weakens Hispanic voters’ political clout and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates. Both high courts have been entirely dominated by Republicans for more than two decades, and both courts remain overwhelmingly white.

[…]

The plaintiffs had proposed that Texas adopt a single-member district approach, carving up the state geographically to allow for Hispanic-majority voting districts. In her Wednesday ruling, Ramos conceded it would be possible to remedy the Hispanic voters’ “electoral disadvantage” by switching to single-member elections. But she declined to order that change because the voters had failed to prove that the obstacles they faced to electing their preferred candidates were “on account of race.”

See here, here, and here for the background. It was an interesting argument, though as commenter Mainstream pointed out in that middle update it would have been a challenge to draw districts to try to remedy the problem if the judge had found for the plaintiffs. At some point – maybe this year! – Democrats are going to break through at the statewide level, and that could easily scramble the arguments that would apply now. I don’t know if the plaintiffs intend to appeal, but it seems to me they’ve already faced the court most likely to be amenable to them. It’s not going to get any easier from here.

Don’t expect a Ken Paxton trial to happen this year

Delays, delays, nothing but delays.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for fraud nearly three years ago but is unlikely to go on trial before Election Day.

Paxton’s trials are on hold while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether the prosecutors on the case are being overpaid. The court went on summer recess Wednesday, and won’t hear any cases or issue any major opinions before the fall.

This means they won’t announce a decision in the pay case until September, at the earliest, which experts said will delay Paxton’s trial dates until after the Nov. 6 election — and probably into next year.

“I just don’t see there’s any way it gets tried before the election,” said Rusty Hardin, a Houston attorney who has represented everyone from Enron employees to athletes and TV stars. “I would have doubted that the trial would have happened before the election even if the Court of Criminal Appeals would have decided today.”

There’s more, so read the rest. Just for a sense of the timeline here, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas halted the special prosecutors’ pay last February, then ruled they had to give a bunch of it back to Collin County in August. The CCA then stayed that ruling pending any action it would take in September, and after giving everyone 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ appeal of the 5th Court’s ruling, they agreed in December to formally review that ruling. At that time, it delayed the actual Paxton trial, which was originally set to start on December 11, to this year. More than six months later, the CCA has not scheduled oral arguments for that appeal, and so here we are. There are other factors at play here – the damage done to the Harris County courthouse by Harvey greatly complicates things, for example – but either until this lawsuit gets resolved, nothing else will happen. And just any ruling won’t get us back on track, because if the CCA lets the 5th Court’s ruling stand, the special prosecutors will resign, and we’ll have to start more or less from scratch. Ken Paxton could well be collecting his state pension by the time this sucker gets to a courthouse.

You’ve heard the expression that “justice delayed is justice denied”. Usually, that applies to the defendant, who is entitled by the Constitution to a fair and prompt trial. In this case, as Democratic nominee for AG Justin Nelson says in a statement, Ken Paxton is benefiting from the unending delays, with the assistance of his legislative cronies. You’d think a guy who loudly proclaims his innocence would want to get this over with, but not Ken Paxton. It would seem he’s just fine with putting this off, at least until after the election. Feel free to speculate as to why that might be.

CCA refuses to hear Ron Reynolds’ appeal

It’s getting awfully close to midnight.

Rep. Ron Reynolds

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to review state Rep. Ron Reynolds’ criminal conviction and one-year jail sentence, according to online court records.

The Missouri City Democrat had asked the court to overturn a 2015 misdemeanor conviction in Montgomery County for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury practice. Reynolds still has 15 days to file a motion for a rehearing, according to a staffer at the court, but it is likely that Reynolds will soon serve his year-long jail sentence.

Joel Daniels, the main prosecutor in Reynolds’ trial and chief of the white collar division in the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, said the court’s next step would be to issue a mandate to the trial court to carry out the sentence.

“That will mean that Mr. Reynolds’ case will be put back on the docket, and he’ll be brought into court” and taken to jail, Daniels said.

Before then, Reynolds can request a rehearing, as the court staffer said, and, in theory, he could request time to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Daniels said. But that would be “extremely unusual and very rare.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t know if Rep. Reynolds has any tricks remaining in his bad to stay out of jail at this point. If not, then this will come to exactly the point I’ve been saying it will, which is that he’ll be in jail while a legislative session is happening, leaving his constituents without representation during that time, all because he was too self-centered to recognize the need to put their needs first and step down. To be fair, he can still do that: If he resigns effective November 6, we can at least get a special election in January and a new rep in place by March. Not ideal, but better than a Rep in the pokey. Reynolds sent me a whiny message via Facebook back in 2015 when I first called on him to leave office and get his personal life in order so I have no illusion that he’ll listen to me this time, but there it is. You did some good things in the Legislature, Ron Reynolds. Now do one more good thing and let someone else take your place. There’s nothing more to say about this.

Lawsuit over how judges are elected statewide goes to trial

Hey, remember that lawsuit that argued that statewide elections of judges was discriminatory against Latinos? The case is being heard in court this week.

El Paso lawyer Carmen Rodriguez and Juanita Valdez-Cox, a community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley, live hundreds of miles from each other, but they share an electoral grievance that could upend the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

For years, Rodriguez and Valdez-Cox have noticed that campaigning for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals hardly reaches their corners of the state. And it’s left them feeling so neglected and undermined as voters that they decided to the sue Texas over the statewide election system it uses to fill seats on those courts.

“I think every vote should count and should have equal weight as much as possible,” Rodriguez testified in federal court on Monday on the first day of a week-long trial in a case challenging the state’s current election method for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. But those campaigning for those seats hardly make their case to El Paso voters, Rodriguez added, so “they don’t seem to need our vote.”

That sentiment is a key component to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Rodriguez, six other Hispanic voters and Valdez-Cox’s organization, La Union del Pueblo Entero, that alleges the statewide method of electing judges violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the voting power of Texas Hispanics and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates.U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has set aside the rest of the week for the trial during which the plaintiffs’ lawyers will work to convince Ramos that Texas should adopt a single-member approach — similar to those employed by some city councils and school boards — that would carve up districts geographically in a way that could allow for Latino-majority voting districts.

“The courts cannot be the great equalizer of our social fabric when one group — Latinos — are disadvantaged in the election process,” Jose Garza, an attorney representing the voters, said in his opening statement Monday.

Throughout the day, Garza and other attorneys representing the voters suing the state called up individual plaintiffs and election law and history experts to help make their case that the state’s current system for electing Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges “submerges Latino voters” in a manner that violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits an electoral practice or procedure that discriminates against voters.

Lawyers for the Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in court, will offer up their own experts later in the week in hopes of dispelling those claims. The state’s lead attorney, Patrick Sweeten, on Monday provided a preview of their arguments when he described their defense and the plaintiffs’ arguments as “two ships passing in the night” because the state’s evidence will show that the plaintiffs cannot meet their legal burden of proving a Section 2 violation.

The state is also expected to call up an expert witness who will argue that single-member districts would “disempower more Hispanic voters than they could potentially empower” because they would only be able to vote for one seat on each high court instead of casting a ballot for all 18 seats.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers spent a large portion of the day arguing that that point would only hold up if you assumed Latinos had the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates to begin with.

See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss a few months ago. This story was from Tuesday, but I haven’t seen anything more recent so I can’t say how the trial is going. Seems like a heavy lift to me, and there’s an argument to be made that districting the courts would put a ceiling on the number of Latinos that could be elected. You have to figure that sooner or later things will be different for statewide races. That said, I very much understand not wanting to wait, though of course taking a court case to completion will take some number of years. We’re at the start of that process, and we’ll see how it goes. Courthouse News and KUT have more.

No Paxton trial till prosecutor pay case resolved

It’s not on the court calendar at this time.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s fraud trials have been put on hold as the lawyers pursuing the criminal charges against him fight for years of back pay.

Judge Robert Johnson has taken Paxton’s three criminal cases off his docket for now, the court confirmed to The Dallas Morning News on Friday. While court staff did not have a reason for the removal, the three attorneys prosecuting Paxton have repeatedly asked for the cases to be halted while they fight to have their pay resumed.

The delay will almost certainly push Paxton’s trials into general election season, when he will be seeking another term as the state’s top lawyer. In July, Paxton’s indictments will turn three years old.

[…]

“The (Paxton) case is kind of waiting to go to trial based on [the CCA’s] decision,” said Larry Meyers, a Democrat who lost his seat on the criminal court last year. “About six weeks would probably be a fairly responsible time for them to get an opinion out.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals won’t take up the prosecutors’ case until January 10, so a decision could be issued just before voters go to the polls in the March 6 primary elections. If the court sides with the prosecutors, jury selection in Houston will likely proceed without much further delay. If it doesn’t, the prosecutors have threatened to step down, a move which will temporarily derail the case against Paxton as the county looks for replacement lawyers.

See here for the background. If the CCA rules for the prosecutors, figure on the trial beginning in late spring or early summer. If not, figure on something like the third of never. Let’s hope for the best.

CCA to review Paxton prosecutors pay case

Good.

Best mugshot ever

The state’s highest criminal court agreed Wednesday to take a closer look at prosecutors’ long-running fight to get paid for their handling of the securities fraud case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The move by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals could have a major impact on the separate case against Paxton. The prosecutors have suggested they will bail if they cannot get paid, likely imperiling the more than two-year case against the state’s top lawyer.

“We are gratified but not surprised by the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to formally hear this landmark proceeding, one that impacts trial judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys across Texas,” the prosecutors said in a statement Wednesday.

Prosecutors asked the Court of Criminal Appeals in September to reverse a ruling from a lower court that voided a six-figure invoice for work that goes back to January 2016. The prosecutors said the decision by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals — spurred by a legal challenge to the invoice by Collin County commissioners — was a “clear abuse of discretion.”

Days after the prosecutors appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals in September, it put the lower-court ruling on hold. But the court waited until Wednesday — nearly two months later — to announce its decision to review the ruling.

See here and here for the background. All of this jousting over paying for the prosecutors has pushed the trial back into 2018, with the next court date awaiting the disposal of this case. You know how I feel about this, so let’s hope for once that the CCA’s infamous pro-prosecutor tendencies will be a force for good for once. The Chron has more.

Five out of six ain’t bad

Five Democratic candidates for six statewide judicial positions, all from Harris County.

Four state district and county-level judges from Harris County and a Houston civil-litigation lawyer filed for seats on the Texas Supreme Court and the state Court of Criminal Appeals at state Democratic headquarters.

“The only time they open the courts is when it suits their cronies,” said state District Judge Steven Kirkland of Houston, referring to the nine Republicans on the Texas Supreme Court.

[…]

Harris County Civil Court Judge Ravi K. Sandill, who seeks Republican Justice John Devine’s Place 4 seat on the state Supreme Court, said voters would reject the leadership styles of Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We’ve got a bully in the White House. We’ve got a governor who’s a bully,” he said. “Texans stand up to bullies.”

[…]

Kathy Cheng, a native of Taiwan, said she’s been “the voice for people who don’t have a voice” in nearly 20 years of private law practice. She filed for the Place 6 seat of Republican Justice Jeff Brown.

Signing paperwork to run for Court of Criminal Appeals were Maria T. Jackson, presiding judge of the 339th state District Court in Harris County, and Ramona Franklin, who’s judge there in the 338th.

Jackson filed for the presiding judge seat now held by Republican Sharon Keller of Dallas. Franklin is seeking the Place 7 seat of Republican Barbara Hervey of San Antonio.
“No matter where you live or what you look like or who you love, in my courtroom, you’re going to receive justice,” she said.

Kirkland and Sandill you knew about. Jackson was elected in 2008 and has been re-elected twice. Franklin was elected in 2016. Cheng ran for the 1st Court of Appeals in 2012. The Chron story says that a sixth candidate is not expected to come forward, which is too bad. It’s great that Harris County is representing like this, but surely there’s someone somewhere else in the state who can throw a hat in the ring. Be that as it may, best of luck to these five.

TCDLA pulls Paxton prosecutors brief

Get your act together, y’all.

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A leading organization of criminal defense lawyers on Tuesday withdrew its legal brief in support of prosecutors who are fighting to get paid for work on the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The friend-of-the-court brief, which argued that the payment fight could endanger the system for ensuring that indigent defendants are properly represented at trial, was withdrawn because it did not follow proper procedures by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the organization said.

David Moore, president of the association, said the brief to the Court of Criminal Appeals was pulled because it had not been approved by the group’s executive committee, which unanimously voted Monday to withdraw the document.

That committee will now examine the issue to determine if the brief should be approved or if the matter should be decided by the full board of directors, said Moore, a lawyer in Longview.

“I fear,” said Brian Wice, one of the prosecutors, “there may be other issues in play driving its decision to withdraw its brief other than a purported ‘failure to follow proper procedures and policies.’”

“The larger question is why Mr. Paxton’s defense team does not want the Court of Criminal Appeals to consider” the brief, Wice said, adding that it raised compelling points about the payment fight’s impact on public policy and proper legal representation for indigent defendants.

Dan Cogdell, one of Paxton’s defense lawyers, said he expected further action to be taken against “the parties responsible for its filing.”

“I will not have any further comment on the matter now except to express my grave disappointment in the impropriety of the filing of such a pleading in a case of this magnitude and am gratified that the proper steps to correct the situation have begun,” Cogdell said.

Austin lawyer David Schulman, one of the brief’s authors, said he and others involved believed they had followed the organization’s bylaws, but he declined to discuss specifics.

“This wasn’t any kind of guerrilla action. We thought we were authorized, but we were wrong,” he said.

See here for the background. It’s clear that the arguments made in the TCDLA brief would be good for the defense bar as a whole, but not good for Team Paxton, as they would greatly benefit from having the courts screw the special prosecutors in their case. As Mr. Spock famously said, the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. I hope there are enough people with a larger view of things at the TCDLA who can override these objections.

In support of the Paxton prosecutors

Good to see.

Best mugshot ever

In an unusual step, six prosecutors and Texas’ criminal defense attorneys association have joined a continuing legal storm over how much the special prosecutors overseeing the criminal case against Attorney General Ken Paxton should get paid.

Preventing the three special prosecutors in Paxton’s case from getting paid would thwart justice, according to Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas “Nico” LaHood, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, former State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn and Enrico Valdez, a Bexar County assistant district attorney. The group intervened late Friday with the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

[…]

In a separate filing with the appeals court, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association argues much the same thing, saying that courts have previously ruled that proper compensation for appointed prosecutors is necessary and that the Collin County Commissioner’s Court should honor the payments to the three special prosecutors in the Paxton case.

“We’re gratified that prosecutors and defense attorneys with almost 200 years of collective experience agree how very important this case is, and that we’re entitled to the relief we seek in the Court of Criminal Appeals,” Houston attorney Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors in the case, said in a statement Sunday.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the prosecutors’ brief is here, and the TCDLA brief is here. Friday was the deadline for all to submit documents in support of or opposition to the Fifth Court’s ruling. The Statesman adds details.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, in a brief filed recently with the Court of Criminal Appeals, argued that unless the ruling is reversed, it will place strict limits on legal fees, “effectively preventing the judiciary from being able to appoint qualified lawyers in difficult cases.”

“All of the gains made and all of the advances and improvements accomplished in indigent defense in Texas over the last 20 years will fall to the wayside,” the association argued. “Texas will return to the days of sleeping lawyers and otherwise unemployed insurance lawyers taking court appointments in criminal cases.”

A second brief by six current or former prosecutors — including Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and County Attorney David Escamilla — also urged the appeals court ruling to be overturned, arguing that it undermines the pursuit of justice in cases, like Paxton’s, where outside prosecutors are appointed after a local district attorney steps aside for a conflict of interest or similar reason.

Judges must have the discretion to set higher fees for unusual or difficult cases, they told the court.

“After all, it is often the unusual cases that require the most skilled and qualified attorneys, and these are the very attorneys who are most likely to decline the representation without adequate compensation,” said the prosecutors, who included former State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn and Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., a Republican.

[…]

“Without the ability to pay a reasonable market rate in these rare circumstances, courts are effectively without power to fulfill their constitutional obligation,” the defense lawyers group told the Court of Criminal Appeals.

According to the brief from the Travis County prosecutors and others, the lower-court ruling also undermines the ability of court-appointed prosecutors to do a complicated and taxing job that often includes seeking warrants, handling grand juries, responding to defense motions, interviewing witnesses, reviewing evidence and preparing for trial.

In addition to discouraging qualified lawyers from serving as prosecutors, the prosecutors’ brief complained that the ruling allows politics to invade criminal justice decisions — such as in Collin County, where commissioners have voiced support for Paxton while seeking to limit payments to those prosecuting him.

“It creates a situation where the local county commissioners can effectively stop a criminal prosecution,” the brief said.

I’ve been saying a lot of these things myself, so I’m glad someone with actual legal credentials is making those arguments formally. Galveston Count and the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas filed briefs in support of Collin County, since all they really care about is the financial impact. I’ll say again, the state could solve this very easily by picking up the tab in these cases. It’s a small amount of money in that context, and it would avoid all these problems. Someone needs to file a bill to this effect in 2019.

Paxton trial delayed again

This will happen some day. I hope.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s trial has been put off for a third time.

The judge in the securities fraud case against Paxton sided Wednesday with prosecutors who had been pushing for another trial delay because of a long-running dispute over their fees. The decision by Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson scrapped Paxton’s current Dec. 11 trial date and left the new one to be determined, possibly at a Nov. 2 conference.

Paxton had been set to go to trial on Dec. 11 on the least serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial had already been pushed back twice because of pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

[…]

In a feisty hourlong hearing Wednesday, the prosecutors and Paxton’s lawyers sparred over a familiar subject: whether they should hold off on a trial until the prosecutors could collect a paycheck — an issue currently tied up in a separate legal battle. Earlier this year, when the case was before a different judge, he denied the prosecutors’ first request to delay the trial until they could get paid.

Johnson had a different take Wednesday, granting the prosecutors’ latest motion for continuance. He asked both sides to come up with a new trial date, preferably in late February or early March. After some back and forth — a Paxton lawyer proposed a new trial date on March 6 — they all agreed to continue the discussion at the Nov. 2 pretrial conference.

The prosecutors had been seeking to put off the trial until the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, could sort out the payment issue. Last week, the Court of Criminal Appeals stepped into the dispute over the prosecutors’ pay, issuing a stay of a lower-court ruling last month that invalidated a six-figure paycheck for them. In its decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ contention that the lower court, the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, overstepped its authority when it voided the payment.

If the Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately rules against the prosecutors — effectively leaving them without pay for the foreseeable future — they will move to withdraw from the case, Wice said.

Paxton’s team had none of it. His lawyers contended the prosecutors were seeking to undermine Paxton’s right to a speedy trial and repeatedly pointed to the prosecutors’ previous failures to get the trial delayed due to the payment issue.

“It’s time,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said. “It’s time to try the case.”

See here for some background. The first I’d heard of this motion was Tuesday when the Trib and the Chron reported on it. You know where I stand on this, and while I agree with Team Paxton that I’d like to get on with this already, I would note that it is well within their power to ask Paxton’s buddies Jeff Blackard and the Collin County Commissioners Court to drop their vendetta against the prosecutors, since that is the main stumbling block at this time. I really don’t see how anyone can object to them wanting to get paid what they were told they would be paid, nor can I see how anyone would expect them to work for free. The solution is simple if they want it to happen. Until then, we await the November 2 hearing at which everyone argues over a new court date.

CCA stays Paxton prosecutor pay ruling

A bit of sanity at last, though we’re not out of the woods yet.

Best mugshot ever

Texas’ highest criminal court has stepped into the long-running dispute over the prosecutors’ pay in the securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton, putting on hold a lower-court ruling that voided a six-figure invoice.

In a decision Monday, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of an Aug. 21 ruling by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals that had invalidated the $205,000 payment, which covered work going back to January 2016. Last week, the prosecutors asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse that ruling, calling it a “clear abuse of discretion.”

In its order Monday, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ arguments.

[…]

“We’re extremely gratified that, after a thoughtful and careful review of our writ, at least five judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals recognized that we were entitled to a stay of the Fifth Court of Appeals’ order,” prosecutor Brian Wice said in a statement. “We’re cautiously optimistic that the Court will ultimately conclude that the Fifth Court’s unwarranted decision to scuttle the fee schedules of over two-thirds of all Texas counties was a clear abuse of discretion.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This isn’t a ruling in the case, just basically a stay on the 5th Court order pending oral arguments. The CCA could still uphold the lower court’s ruling, which would be bad. But at least there’s now a chance we could affirm the principle that private citizens should not be able to derail prosecutions. The Chron and the DMN have more.

Paxton prosecutors officially petition the CCA over their pay

Last chance.

Best mugshot ever

The special prosecutors in the securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton are asking the state’s highest criminal court to help them get paid.

On Tuesday, the prosecutors asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse a ruling from a lower court last month that voided a six-figure invoice for work that goes back to January 2016. The prosecutors said the decision by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals was a “clear abuse of discretion.”

The ruling “will have a chilling effect on the ability of trial judges to appoint qualified lawyers — defense attorneys and special prosecutors alike — willing to take on the most complicated and serious cases,” the prosecutors wrote.

The Court of Criminal Appeals must now decide whether it will hear the prosecutors’ case. Prosecutor Brian Wice asked for oral arguments.

It is a high-stakes moment for the trio of Paxton prosecutors, made up of Houston attorneys Nicole DeBorde, Kent Schaffer and Wice. If the Court of Criminal Appeals turns them down, they will likely have to make a decision about whether to continue working for free.

See here, here, and here for the background. You know where I stand on this. It’s a travesty this has even gotten this far. If the CCA doesn’t put an end to this nonsense, it’s a get out of jail free card for Paxton. Winning in court is one thing, winning by forfeit is another altogether. Don’t screw this up, CCA. The DMN has more.

Collin County wants its pay back

Of course they do.

Best mugshot ever

Collin County is about to start another fight over the prosecution of indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Since 2015, the county has been billed more than half a million dollars to prosecute Paxton, who faces securities fraud charges. But fresh off a court win that voided half of those costs, county commissioners now want the rest of their money back.

On Monday, the commissioners voted unanimously to sue for the more than $205,000 they paid the special prosecutors in January 2016. They argue that since a Dallas court struck down the prosecutors’ hourly fees — ruling they broke local and federal rules — the county should be reimbursed for all that it’s spent on the case.

See here and here for the background. What Collin County is doing is unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get what they want. I have hope that the CCA will reverse this ridiculous ruling, but I can’t say I have faith. What I want to know is this: What happens if at some point the prosecutors say “screw this, I’m going to back to my real job”? In particular, what happens if they say this before the Paxton trial begins? I’m hard-pressed to imagine a scenario more ridiculous than Ken Paxton winning his trial by forfeit, but it could happen. What is the fallback position here, and has anyone other than me considered it?

By the way, let me also note that this is a rather extreme example of why local elections matter. Having a Democrat on Collin County Commissioners Court would not have changed the course of their actions, but it at least would have provided a voice of opposition. I don’t know what the electoral map looks like from this perspective – I may try to check it out if I can – but getting a foothold in red counties like this has got to be a priority.

Paxton prosecutors to petition CCA

Last chance to get paid.

Best mugshot ever

The state’s highest criminal court will get a chance to decide whether the special prosecutors appointed in the criminal cases against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton can be paid the $300-an-hour rate they were promised.

Kent A. Schaffer, one of the three special prosecutors in Texas v. Paxton, said the trio will file for a writ of mandamus with the Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate the Fifth Court of Appeals decision Monday to void the judge’s order authorizing an approximately $205,000 payment.

“It’s not over yet,” said Schaffer, a partner in Bires Schaffer & DeBorde in Houston.

[…]

Collin County paid the first order issued by Judge George Gallagher of Tarrant County to pay the special prosecutors $254,908 for pretrial work, but county commissioners balked at making the second payment ordered by Gallagher in January. Instead, the commissioners filed for a writ of mandamus to compel the trial court to vacate its order requiring payment.

According to the Fifth Court’s opinion in In Re Collin County, Texas, Commissioners, Rule 4.01B adopted by Collin County’s judges authorizes payments of pro tem attorneys to deviate from the schedule adopted by the judges. The three-judge panel of the Fifth Court, which heard the commissioners’ petition for a writ, noted in its opinion that Rule 4.01B appears to thwart the objective of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 26.05, which requires district judges to adopt a schedule of reasonable fees for appointed attorneys.

See here for the background. After all this time, I confess I’m a little unclear on what happens if the special prosecutors lose. Does this mean they will then have been paid all they’re ever going to be paid, or does it mean their pay will be recalculated and readministered based on a much lower hourly rate? In either case, this is ridiculous and will indeed make it impossible to find qualified special prosecutors in future situations. You know my answer to this – the state should pick up the tab when a state official is involved. That ain’t happening any time soon, so let’s hope the CCA makes it all go away, at least for now.

Precinct analysis: SBOE districts

There are 15 members on the State Board of Education, five Democrats and ten Republicans. Of those ten Republican-held seats, four of them were in districts that were interesting in 2016:


Dist   Incumbent  Clinton   Trump   Obama  Romney
=================================================
SBOE5     Mercer    47.0%   46.8%   42.9%   54.7%
SBOE6   Bahorich    46.3%   48.6%   38.8%   59.7%
SBOE10   Maynard    42.5%   51.6%   40.5%   57.0%
SBOE12    Miller    44.4%   50.1%   38.7%   59.7%
SBOE7   Bradley*    37.1%   59.2%   35.2%   63.6%

Dist   Incumbent    Burns Keasler Hampton  Keller
=================================================
SBOE5     Mercer    43.5%   51.3%   41.7%   53.7%
SBOE6   Bahorich    41.5%   54.8%   38.5%   58.7%
SBOE10   Maynard    39.8%   54.7%   40.1%   54.9%
SBOE12    Miller    39.1%   56.6%   37.7%   58.8%
SBOE7   Bradley*    35.9%   60.9%   36.6%   60.8%

I included David Bradley’s numbers here because his will be an open seat in 2018, but as you can see he really doesn’t belong. Add Ken Mercer’s SBOE5 to the list of districts that were carried by Hillary Clinton. I hadn’t realized it till I looked at the data. I had previously identified Mercer’s district as a viable target last year, and indeed it was a close race – he won by four points and failed to clear fifty percent. SBOE terms are four years so the next shot at Mercer isn’t until 2020, but he needs to be on the priority list then.

Districts 6 and 10 were also on the ballot last year and thus not up again till 2020. District 6, which is entirely within Harris County, shifted about seven points in a blue direction, and while I’d expect it to continue to shift as the county does, it’s still got a ways to go to get to parity. With SBOE districts being twice as big as Senate districts and generally being completely under the radar, getting crossovers is a challenge. District 10 didn’t really shift much, but it’s close enough to imagine something good happening in a strong year. District 12 is the only one on the ballot next year, and it’s the reddest of the four based on the downballot data. But if there’s a Trump effect next year, who knows what could happen. It certainly deserves a decent candidate. Keep it in mind as we go forward.

We have the Paxton case

By “we”, I mean Harris County.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal case is officially moving to Harris County.

In an order signed Friday morning, Judge George Gallagher vacated several previous orders scheduling hearings in the case and directed the Collin County District Clerk’s Office to transfer the proceedings to the Harris County District Clerk.

Gallagher’s order effectively triggers the search for a new judge in the case, following up on a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling this week that removed him as the judge who would presided over the embattled attorney general’s securities fraud and registration case. Special prosecutors asked the court to keep Gallagher.

The ruling marked a win for the first-term Republican attorney general who has been fighting to remove the judge from his case since Gallagher opted to move the trial out of Paxton’s home of Collin County in April.

See here, here, and here for the background. I always want to put the “win” here in quotes, since I believe it’s a victory in name only, with no practical effect. But I suppose it makes Paxton feel better, so we mustn’t discount that.

The DMN adds some technical details.

A new judge will be assigned by random. Harris County assigns judges for criminal cases using the “Automated Random Assignment System,” a kind of massive bingo cage containing 220 balls that spits out assignments.

On Thursday, Harris County District Courts Administrator Clay Bowman told The Dallas Morning News that Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer would be shepherding the assignment.

“Our local administrative judge is the person who will be handling, sort of shepherding, the assignment of the case,” said Bowman, who added Olen Underwood, the regional presiding judge for Harris and 34 other counties in southeast Texas, would likely also be involved.

There are nearly two dozen criminal district judges in Harris County who could be assigned the case. Nearly half are Democrats. These judges, who are locally elected, have received thousands of dollars in donations from all three prosecutors and two of Paxton’s top attorneys in the past.

This story also calls the ouster of Judge Gallagher as a “win” – specifically, a “major victory” – for Paxton. I wonder if that narrative will change if he draws a Democratic judge. Not that it should matter, of course – it shouldn’t matter in any event who the judge is, since they’re supposed to be all impartial and judicial and all. But whatever. The updated Chron story, which refers to Paxton being handed a “major win”, says that the judicial bingo process should occur “sometime very early [this] week”, so we’ll keep an eye on that. Mazel tov to whoever gets this one dropped in their lap.