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August 11th, 2010:

More proof of my theory

That would be my theory that fifty or sixty years ago, a number of terror cells infiltrated the US and impregnated a bunch of women with babies who were groomed from birth to become utter morons who would destroy the country from within by their sheer, unbounded stupidity. It explains Louie Gohmert, and it explains Debbie Riddle. Honestly, whatever terrors her paranoid yet feeble mind conjures up that keeps her awake at night, they could not possibly be as scary as she herself is. Hair Balls, Stace, and In the Pink have theories of their own.

Interview with State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner is one of the senior members of the Houston-area delegation, having served HD139 since he was first elected in 1988. He doesn’t have a campaign webpage, so let me refer you to his Texas Tribune biography for a brief summary of his career. He was Speaker Pro Tempore under Tom Craddick for three regular and several special sessions from 2003 through 2007. As you know, that was a bone of contention with many of his fellow Democrats, and it was one of the topics we discussed.

Download the MP3 file

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to have an in depth conversation with Rep. Turner. I don’t agree with his evaluation of Speaker Craddick’s merits, but I appreciate his candor and his perspective. And I can’t say he’s wrong about Speaker Straus. See beneath the fold for corroboration of what he has to say on this matter.

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.


Judicial Q&A: Tom Berg

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

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

I’m Tom Berg and I am the Democratic candidate for the 262nd Criminal District Court of Harris County, Texas. I am a graduate of Rice University and the University of Houston Law Center. I was licensed to practice law in Texas in 1978. I was a State Department brat and grew up in Mexico where I graduated high school; I still speak fluent Spanish.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court is a trial court and hears felony cases, i.e., the most serious criminal charges.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

This is an open bench – the incumbent chose not to run again shortly after I announced my campaign. I originally selected this court because the incumbent had developed a poor reputation for courtesy and demeanor toward lawyers and defendants (sometimes called “Black Robe” disease).

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law here for 32 years. I have been board certified in criminal law since 1984. I served 27 years in our Federal Public Defender’s Office including 19 years as its First Assistant. I’ve tried in excess of 150 jury trials and have extensive appellate experience. I am also a colonel in Army Reserve, Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I have sat for the last five years as a part-time military judge in the Army Trial Judiciary, presiding over courts-martial about one week a month around the country. I spent a year in Iraq as a liaison to the Iraqi judiciary in 2008-2009. I also did a combat tour as the staff judge advocate with a civil affairs task force in Afghanistan in 2003-2004 and served as the legal advisor for detention operations at Guantanamo Bay in early 2002, enforcing the Geneva Conventions while I was there. During Desert Shield/Storm and in Bosnia during Operation Noble Eagle I was an Army prosecutor. Overall, my practice has been in the court-room and I’ve enjoyed all the different perspectives. As noted I have worked in judicial policy and the administration of detention/corrections operations.

5. Why is this race important?

The Harris County judicial system has been broken for decades (can’t just blame the Republicans for this). Too many non-violent pretrial defendants are held in jail for extended periods; they can’t make bail and can’t get their cases heard. It makes a mockery of the presumption of innocence. Not only are they taken out of the work force and unable to support their dependents, but they cost us, the Harris County taxpayers, a fortune to keep locked up without a corresponding benefit to society. The Pretrial Release Agency does not execute its mission. I worked there before I went to law school in the mid-1970’s when it actually was used successfully to alleviate both overcrowding and hardship. The Bail Bond schedule is arbitrary – tied to the alleged offense rather than the individual’s actual risk of flight or danger to the community. State law mandates a fair defense for the accused. I interpret that as a directive to establish a viable, efficient and comprehensive public defender system and I support it.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have spent most of my adult life in public service. I am committed to the reform of our judicial system for the benefit of our County. I am committed to the just and timely punishment of those who are convicted when they are convicted. Pretrial punishment just rubs me wrong. I realize that we are resource-constrained but there is much we can do if we do it in the public spirit. I’m prepared to work double days in court and with the judicial policy makers to raise our system to meet the promises and obligations of the Constitution and the law.

Nominations, please

I sure hope that while President Obama was in town, someone asked him if he ever intends to nominate a US Attorney for Texas?

Justice goes on, but Obama could have used those prosecutor jobs to build a farm team that helps Texas Democrats rebuild, instead of leaving them filled by unknown career lawyers. That suggests he may get an earful about botched opportunities when he arrives Monday in Austin and Dallas to raise campaign cash.

“They’re absolutely missing an opportunity, and have missed an opportunity that can’t be recaptured,” said Dallas lawyer Matt Orwig, who spent six years under George W. Bush as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, which includes Plano. “Look at the number who become judges. The number of congressional candidates across the country, or who have become senators. … It’s totally puzzling that they’ve been so passive and inattentive,” he said.

Tussles between Texas’ senators, both Republican , and the state’s Democrats in the U.S. House certainly caused some of the delay, but both sides long ago submitted lists of preferred nominees that largely overlap. While most states have gotten Obama nominees, Texas is still waiting. The White House has consistently denied to discuss any aspect of the issue.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, has made no secret of his irritation at the White House over the delays. Sen. John Cornyn noted that disagreements with the Democrats – notably, over the Dallas-based prosecutor job – “have been in the minority of cases. … I’m as frustrated as anyone else that the White House has been so slow.”

Cornyn’s frustration is more than a little precious, given how the Republicans in the Senate have stalled, snagged, and slow-walked pretty much all of Obama’s nominees. He has had fewer district and appeals court judges approved than any of his recent predecessors, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. If Obama nominated Cornyn’s top four choices tomorrow, who knows when or even if they’d get a confirmation vote. Having said all that, Obama has been bizarrely, bafflingly slow across the board in nominations. I’m far from the only person to wonder what the hell is up with that. So I do hope that the President got multiple earfuls about this while he was here, every word of which he deserved.

Red light camera opponents turn in their petitions

I was beginning to wonder if the anti-red light camera crowd was ever going to turn in their petition signatures, as it’s starting too get a little late in the game. They made their move on Monday, submitting 30,000 petition signatures (22,000 valid ones are needed) to City Secretary Anna Russell to get their proposition to ban the cameras on the ballot. As with everything else they do, this was not without controversy.

Mayor Annise Parker questioned whether there would be enough time for the city secretary to verify that the signatures are from registered Houston voters before an upcoming Aug. 24 election deadline.

Parker said the city secretary’s office would follow the same procedures used for Renew Houston, a group of engineers seeking voter approval for an $8 billion initiative to prevent flooding and shore up Houston’s infrastructure. Backers of that referendum turned in their signatures July 8, and they were verified July 30.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Parker said, “Citizens Against Red Light Cameras have turned these petitions in very late in the process and the Renew Houston petitions took three weeks to be certified. … If it takes just as long, it will not meet the deadline to be on the ballot this fall.”

Andy Taylor, a lawyer representing Keep Houston Safe, a political action committee formed to advocate for the cameras, also said the proposed referendum is illegal, citing a city ordinance that requires petitions for a vote to repeal a law be turned in within 30 days of when it takes effect.

“Who could possibly be against safety cameras that save children’s lives?” Taylor said. “This petition is too late. This petition is out of time and dead on arrival.”

[Paul] Kubosh noted that signatures for several other referendums put to voters in the past decade have been turned in either in August or September and still made it onto the ballot, including the 2001 charter amendment that authorized light rail and another that outlawed benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.

(Before anyone brings it up, yes, that’s my old friend Andy Taylor. Insert your own joke about politics and strange bedfellows.)

The ordinance that limits petition-driven repeal efforts to 30 days after the passage of the law in question is news to me. Here’s the relevant bit from the city charter:

Section 3. – Referendum.

If prior to the date when an ordinance or resolution shall take effect, or within thirty days after the publication of same, a petition signed and verified, as required in section 2-a hereof, by the qualified voters equal in number to ten per centum of the total vote cast at the Democratic Primary for the nomination of Mayor and Commissioners, next preceding the filing of said petition as hereinbefore provided, shall be filed with the Secretary, protesting against the enactment or enforcement of such ordinance or resolution, it shall be suspended from taking effect and no action theretofore taken under such ordinance or resolution shall be legal and valid. Immediately upon the filing of such petition the Secretary shall do all things required by section 2-b of this Article. Thereupon the Council shall immediately reconsider such ordinance or resolution and, if it do not entirely repeal the same, shall submit it to popular vote at the next municipal election, or the Council may, in its discretion, call a special election for that purpose; and such ordinance or resolution shall not take effect unless a majority of the qualified electors voting thereon at such election shall vote in favor thereof. (Added by amendment October 15, 1913)

I dunno. What that says to me is that if you can get your petitioning act together within 30 days, you can actually get the law in question suspended until everything gets sorted out. It doesn’t say to me that after 30 days you can never change or overturn a city law via the referendum process. (Whether that would be a good thing or not is a separate question.) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet money that if this article is used as justification for rejecting Kubosh’s petitions the matter will wind up in court, and I strongly suspect a judge would be sympathetic to Kubosh’s arguments. Seems to me that given how arduous and expensive the petition signature-gathering effort is, a 30-day deadline for action is a mighty high hurdle to clear. Maybe I’m missing something – again, I Am Not A Lawyer – but I don’t see how this is a fatal flaw for Kubosh.

On the other hand, the matter of verifying the signatures in time may be a significant issue. The controlling statute here is Section 3.005, subsection (c) of the Elections Code, which reads “For an election to be held on the date of the general election for state and county officers, the election shall be ordered not later than the 70th day before election day.” That’s August 24 in this case, which makes it the deadline for Anna Russell to say whether or not Team Kubosh has met the threshold. Kubosh’s claims about the light rail and same-sex benefits referenda are irrelevant, because Subsection (c) was added to the code in 2005. Prior to that, the deadline was 62 days before an election, which given that Election Day can be as late as November 8 meant a drop-dead date as late as September 7.

Actually, the effective deadline in this case is even earlier than the 24th. As Jim McGrath of Keep Houston Safe reminded me in an email, Council must authorize the referendum for the ballot, and the last Council meeting before the deadline is August 18. (It’s not on Council’s agenda for today.) That ain’t a lot of time to get the job done.

My take on this, therefore, is that it will come down to whether or not Russell certifies the signatures in time, assuming there are in fact enough valid ones. One presumes, given the Renew Houston example, that she will be examining each signature and not using statistical sampling, which she has the discretion to do but is not required to do. (It’s not clear to me she could do it in the six working days she has before the 18th even if she did use sampling.) I expect Kubosh to wail and gnash his teeth about this, and I won’t be surprised to see it come before a judge as well, but if so I expect he’ll lose just as Carole Keeton Strayhorn did back in 2006. Mary Benton has more.

Finally, you may have noticed at the end of the story a reference to an updated red light camera study that shows collisions have in fact decreased at red light-enabled intersections, which contradicts the initial study, done by the same authors. I will deal with that in a subsequent post.