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June 8th, 2009:

Ed Johnson’s conflict of interest

As you know, there was a lawsuit filed against Paul Bettencourt and the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office over allegations of illegal mishandling of provisional ballots in the past November election. That suit was later expanded to include allegations of voter disenfranchisement by Bettencourt’s office. According to KHOU, some mighty interesting facts have come out so far in the deposition phase.

“This is as blatant a case of election corruption that I have seen,” said Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, a Democrat activist group.

The Lone Star Project’s complaint revolves around Ed Johnson.

Johnson is the associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor Collectors office, but according to state documents, that’s just his day job. Johnson is also a paid director of a small company that provides voter data to Republican candidates for office. That company, Campaign Data Systems, billed at least $140,000 in 2008.

Campaign Data Systems happens to be owned by Republican State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, who also happens to be one of the big pushers of voter ID bills. Johnson testified before the Senate about supposed instances of vote fraud. He tells the Republicans what they want to hear in the guise of a nonpartisan election official, while being on their payroll. Nice little scam they’ve got going there, no? I think we all have a better idea now why State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez called for appointed Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s resignation over Johnson’s (and George Hammerlein’s) testimony, and it makes Vasquez’s response look that much weaker.

I’m sure the Lone Star Project will have plenty more to say on this soon, and I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, I’m thinking the campaign ads against Vasquez next year are going to write themselves. This is going to be fun.

More on the urban transit corridors ordinance

I mentioned last week that the city was getting set to do an overhaul of its planning codes. In particular, there’s a proposed transit corridor ordinance that is up for public discussion on Thursday and a City Council vote in July. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but had heard some early feedback that while it did some good, it fell well short of what it could have been. Fortunately, a couple of folks who are better versed on the technical details than I am have had a look, and have returned their verdicts. First, Christof gives his typically thorough overview of the ordinance, its shortfalls and loopholes. It’s too dense to excerpt, so just go and read and see what we’ll be missing. Second, neoHouston cuts right to the chase:

Let me be clear: if the city adopts the standards as they are written, it will have exactly the opposite of the intended effect. It will be just as easy as it has always been to build suburban, auto-oriented trash near a train station, and it will be HARDER to build an urban building.

The city is taking areas where you could ALREADY build right up to the street and telling you that now you CANNOT do that unless you comply with these additional “Voluntary” design parameters.

This is a punitive measure against exactly the wrong people! This is EXACTLY BACKWARDS from what their stated goal is!

Yeah, that’s not what I was hoping for, either. Read what he has to say as well, and then consider contacting your Council member to let him or her know what you think about this. For that matter, contact your favorite Mayoral candidate and ask him or her what they think about this, since it’ll be on them in six months’ time. We need to move forward on this, and it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening.

Juvenile justice in Harris County

Is rather an oxymoron, it seems. Apparently, the process for certifying juveniles to be tried as adults, which according to the DA’s office is supposed to be only done on “the worst of the worst”, is a mere formality.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Harris County juvenile judges transferred 160 teens’ cases to the adult system — more than nine of the largest urban counties in Texas combined, according to a Chronicle analysis of statewide certifications by county.

The certifications are based on allegations they committed felonies, including robbery, murder, car theft and drug possession.

But such rulings are so common here — and so nearly identical — that they have prompted a legal attack from local attorneys and juvenile justice experts who call them “rubber-stamped” and “assembly line” injustices that violate children’s rights.

The result: “virtual destruction” of dozens of juveniles who are dumped and damaged in adult prisons and “could otherwise turn their lives around,” claims nonprofit Texas Appleseed, according to documents filed in the case. The nonprofit is part of a pending legal challenge of the 2008 certification of a Houston teen charged with murder.

Attorney Christene Wood, a family friend of that teen, said that during his hearing last year the juvenile judge surfed the Internet, laughed and never once made eye contact with the boy. “The certification process here is an absolute joke,” Wood said.

[…]

Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.

Historically, more than 90 percent of the DA’s recommendations for certifications were approved, county statistics indicate. The pace slowed somewhat in the first four months of 2009: 22 requests for certification; six declined.

The hearings tend to be quick — as short as 15 minutes — and based mostly on police statements and probation officers’ reports, according to a review of 2008 case files and interviews with attorneys.

Judges used fill-in-the-blank form rulings with very similar findings, the Chronicle found. In two cases, the forms were written so sloppily that girls certified as adults were referred to as “he.”

Few juvenile defense attorneys asked outside experts to evaluate their 14- to 17-year-old clients. In fact, some children get no formal psychiatric evaluation at all for potential mental health or disability issues before being transferred to adult court, according to records and interviews.

University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus, an expert in juvenile law, said many court-appointed lawyers don’t “bother to work up the case and a lot of the orders are rubber-stamped.”

Heck of a system we’ve got there, isn’t it? I hope that this pending legal challenge leads to a lot more specific information about the judges involved and their less-than-precise behavior, since all of them are up for re-election next year. Between this and the probate courts, the case for change in the judiciary is as clear in 2010 as it was last year. Grits has more.

Appeals court upholds strip club tax ban

Score two for the state’s strip clubs.

The 3rd Court of Appeals panel sided against the $5 per-patron fee, passed by the Legislature in 2007 with the goal of raising sexual-assault prevention funds, in a divided 2-1 opinion released Friday.

The split decision, which contained a dissent by the panel’s only Republican justice, rejected the state’s argument that the fee is a lawful alcohol regulation. The justices, rather, said the charge amounted to a content-based tax on protected speech at sexually oriented businesses.

“Differential taxation based on content is subject to strict scrutiny,” the justices wrote in the opinion, referring to a legal standard for such cases that allows speech regulations only if there is an compelling government interest in protecting the public.

Advocates for sexual assault programs were heartened, though, by a strongly worded dissent by Justice David Puryear and by a concurring opinion by Chief Justice J. Woodfin Jones that seemed to open the door to similar regulation in the future.

“We’ve always known that this case would end up at the Texas Supreme Court, no matter how the 3rd Court ruled,” said Torie Camp, deputy director at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “We look forward to pressing those very same arguments before the Texas Supreme Court.”

Puryear wrote that the law should stand because it isn’t aimed at preventing or suppressing topless dancing, but rather seeks to combat a possible correlation between alcohol, erotic expression and sexual assault.

“The statute seems concerned with the regulation of alcohol or the regulation of alcohol and erotic entertainment rather than the suppression of any specific erotic expression,” he wrote.

The original suit was filed in December 2007, three months after the law took effect. The law was struck down last March. You can find the court’s opinion upholding the ruling, written by Justice Henson, here, Chief Justice Jones’ concurring opinion here, and Justice Puryear’s dissent here. I tend to agree with Ms. Camp that the Third Court has given the state hope going forward. Having said that, given the glacial pace at which the Supreme Court operates, I think there’s an excellent chance that the 82nd Lege will be able to address this before they issue a ruling.

The class of 2010, so far

In other 2010 candidate news, the HCDP has compiled a list of people who are known to be seeking a judicial office in Harris County in 2010. Their list is here (Excel spreadsheet), and I’ve published it as a Google spreadsheet with comments about some of the candidates, a few of whom have been on the ballot before. We’re way off from the filing deadline, so needless to say this can and will change between now and then, but it’s an early snapshot of the judicial slate for next year. Check it out.

UPDATE: Mark Bennett covered a lot of this ground for the criminal court judge candidates, about whom I knew almost nothing. Very good resource, so check it out.