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June 12th, 2006:

Prosecuting students in Round Rock

I haven’t been following very closely this story about high school kids in Round Rock who got arrested for skipping school during the immigration rallies back in March, but I’ve got a few thoughts about it now.

Of the more than 200 students cited for breaking daytime curfew, more than 80 have pleaded guilty or no contest to their citations, agreeing to pay fines or do community service.

But about half pleaded not guilty and requested jury trials, arguing that the curfew that requires them to be in school provides an exception for exercising free speech rights. The citations are a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine.

All things considered, I suppose we should be grateful it’s not a felony charge.

The prosecutions have outraged civil rights groups, attorneys and some local residents who say the city seems more concerned with protecting its tough-on-crime image than the students’ rights. They note that they haven’t heard of any other towns prosecuting student protesters.

The Texas Civil Rights Project is representing 82 students, promising costly court battles that could tie up Round Rock’s municipal court.

“We don’t think they broke the law,” said Efrain Davila, a 52-year-old Round Rock resident who criticized the prosecutions at a City Council meeting Thursday night. “They came down too heavy-handed and now it’s a criminal thing and we don’t think it’s a criminal thing. The whole United States saw it differently, except for Round Rock.”

Davila said it was a mistake to ticket the students in the first place.

“I think they thought they could bully their way into getting these kids to conform and plead guilty and do community service,” he said. “Now, we have these litigates at the door, biting at the bit to defend these kids, and I think the city attorney is going to be hard-pressed to prosecute these kids, and now we’re in a pickle.”

[…]

“The MO of the Round Rock Police Department is that we’re going to do what’s the right thing to do,” said Capt. Tim Ryle, who led the issuance of citations. “And that means that we don’t turn our heads when a crime is committed, no matter if it’s just a little bitty one, because it’s important to hold people accountable.”

Ryle said police were concerned about the students’ rights and even escorted them on foot and in police cars during a march through town to ensure their safety.

He said he thinks the majority of youths left school because they were passionate about the issue, but that some just saw a chance to skip class, and that’s why each case should be judged individually

[…]

Last week, a municipal court judge granted a prosecutor’s motion to dismiss the cases, which were scheduled for trial June 30. The motion said there was insufficient evidence to prove the two girls weren’t exercising their First Amendment rights.

The next trials, for four students, are set for July 7.

Critics of the prosecutions cheered the dismissals, saying they may indicate a change of heart, or at least of strategy, for a city that initially tried to persuade the students to plead guilty.

“What I sense is going on is they’re suddenly coming to the realization that they may not have the solid legal ground they thought they did,” said Jim Harrington, director of the civil rights group. “Also, a lot of eyes are focused on Round Rock and now they’re hopefully starting to come around.”

Turns out there’s a right to freedom of speech built into the Constitution. Who knew?

I can understand the rationale for having a daytime-curfew law (though I have to ask – is truancy that big a problem in general in Round Rock?), but I think the police overreacted. Captain Ryle seems to imply that he thinks the the kids who were just there to skip class are the ones who were really breaking the law. Why not just give them the citations? If the answer to that question is “because we can’t read their minds”, then there was no point in citing anyone, since the First Amendment defense would then apply universally. The police are allowed to exercise their discretion in matters like this. I realize that selective ticketing would surely leave them open to allegations of unfairness, but being indiscriminate has its own set of consequences, too, especially for the kids who have already given in to the pressure to plead out.

If this is all sounding a bit like the Sugar Land Kiddie Roundup, well, same here. Everyone in that case who resisted the push to cop a quick plea later saw the charges against them dropped. I won’t be at all surprised if that’s what happens here.

And just so we’re clear:

There were two days of protests. The first day, students from Stony Point High School marched to Round Rock High School, alarming school officials and causing them to lock down the school. Police said they just gave warnings and instructed students not to do it again.

The next day, they did it again. Police issued more than 200 citations, but only after escorting the students through town, trying to “keep them from getting run over,” Ryle said.

Gordon Perez, Round Rock high’s associate principal, said the school also disciplined the students with in-school suspensions or Saturday detention. Perez said the students may not have been punished as severely if they hadn’t unsettled both campuses.

“Their whole day was disrupted as a result of this situation,” Perez said.

I have no quarrel at all with any discipline handed down by Round Rock High School. The kids were given fair warning that once was enough. They chose to act again, and that meant facing the consequences from their school. Accepting punishment for breaking rules in the name of serving a higher purpose is a central tenet of civil disobedience. That punishment is still supposed to fit the crime, however, and there’s no requirement to take unfair retribution lying down. The citations issued to these students are an excessive response to their actions, and I look forward to seeing all of them dismissed.

UPDATE: Stace comments.

Candidate Q&A: Bill Connolly

One of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of this year was to do as many candidate interviews as I could. I’m off to a pretty good start so far, I think, and I hope to have a few more in the near future.

I’m doing some interviews by email as well. Here’s the first of this particular group, with local judicial candidate Bill Connolly:

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Bill Connolly. I am the Democratic Nominee running for the 315th Juvenile District Court of Harris County, Texas

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears cases involving criminal offenses committed by children between the age of 10 and 17 (delinquent conduct), children in need of supervision under the Juvenile Justice Code; cases involving the Department of Family and Protective Services (“CPS”), which include termination of parental rights and conservatorship for abuse and neglect claims; petitions for further action or modifications of previous final family law cases that were originally heard and disposed of in the court, and some adoptions.

3. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am a trial and appellate lawyer with 26 years of experience (23 years in juvenile law). I am Board Certified in Juvenile and Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. I was an Adjunct Professor of Juvenile Law at South Texas College of Law for 4 years. I am a past Officer, Director and Chair of the Juvenile Law Section of the Houston Bar Association and am currently serving on the Council for the Juvenile Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. I am a frequent author and lecturer on Family Law and Juvenile Law. I am on the Advisory Boards of Child Advocates and The Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Houston. I am also an Elder at St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston.

4. Why do you believe you would do a better job than the incumbent?

I really like my opponent. I have tried cases with him. He was appointed to the bench effective May 1, 2006 after Judge Kent Ellis decided not to wait until the end of the year to retire and left before the end of his term. Judge Ellis had announced his retirement in 2005 and intended to serve out his term until 12.31.06. My opponent never handled a juvenile case before his appointment to the bench. He had worked for the County Attorney and has dealt a lot with the CPS cases. I have been in practice almost 3 times as long. I believe that he is in his 9th year. I believe that this is an important bench and that my experience is better suited to the needs of the families and children of Harris County. If elected I plan to bring some initiative to the bench in dealing more effectively with the alcohol and drug problems and mental health concerns that play a significant role in the dockets of the Court.

5. Why is this race one we should care about?

It is a court that deals with children and parental rights all day every day. It combines civil law, criminal law and procedure and constitutional law in one place. It is a court that generally deals with those that are less fortunate economically and is one of high profile only when something sensational happens. In truth, something sensational happens in these courts every day. A child is certified to stand trial as an adult or sentenced to many years in prison or the parent-child relationships are severed forever in a termination case. This is heartbreaking for parents and extended families and children in some cases and a happy day for some prospective adoptive parents and children in other cases. How we deal with these children and parents will help us mold the future of these families.

6. What else do we need to know?

This is a Court that a Democrat can win this year. There are no Democratic District Judges in Harris County. This County and the State of Texas need to have a balanced political system from the Courthouse to the Statehouse. Having one political party in complete control is not healthy for a democracy.

Thank you, Bill Connolly. Look for more of these interviews in the coming weeks.

So long, and thanks for all the lost clout

The Chronicle says good-bye to Tom DeLay.

DeLay’s absence in office is already being felt. Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said DeLay always stood ready to pursue or protect Texas’ interests in Congress. Now, as Texas fights to be reimbursed for its costs in feeding, housing and educating hurricane evacuees, it lacks a powerful champion in Washington.

[…]

During DeLay’s days as a backbencher, Congress failed to renew the federal income tax exemption for state sales taxes, placing Texans who itemize at a disadvantage against Americans who pay a fully deductible state income tax. Had DeLay remained in the leadership, the result might have been different.

In seeking to gain power for himself and his party, DeLay stretched the rules beyond the prescribed limits. Texas law says corporate funds may not be used to affect the outcome of elections, but DeLay asserted that in most circumstances they may. He felt no guilt at charging special interests for the opportunity to play golf with him while important legislation was pending on the House floor. He denied the existence of three reprimands from the House ethics committee.

Had he been more conservative in interpreting the rules governing his conduct, DeLay probably would have wielded as much influence without endangering his political career. As it is, DeLay’s loss of power deprives this region of an important political asset.

Let’s not forget that even if he’d stayed in Congress, Tom DeLay had already deprived the Houston region and the state of Texas of a considerable amount of power. Thanks to DeLay, we lost the following:

Max Sandlin, eight years of seniority.
Nick Lampson, eight years of seniority.
Jim Turner, eight years of seniority.
Charlie Stenholm, 26 years of seniority.
Martin Frost, 26 years of seniority.
Ciro Rodriguez, eight years of seniority.
Chris Bell, two years of seniority.

That’s 86 years of seniority flushed away by DeLay’s mid-decade redistricting scheme. If Chet Edwards gets knocked off this time around, that’ll be another 16 years tossed aside. As always, Tom, thanks for nothing.

Two conventions, two views

The Star Telegram’s Bud Kennedy attended both parties’ conventions. He found more to like at the Dem convention than he did at the GOP event. Just so you know.