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January 4th, 2012:

Look out, here comes The Donald

Make of this what you will.

Donald Trump supporters have met an official ballot deadline in Texas, paving the way for the business mogul to become a third-party candidate there, a source close to Trump tells The Blaze. Trump himself acknowledged the filing in a statement.

According to an email sent by the source to The Blaze on Sunday night, Trump supporters filed paperwork on Friday to create the “Make America Great Again Party,” giving Trump the opportunity — should he take advantage of it — to be on the primary ballot.

Texas State law requires the paperwork to be notarized and filed by Jan 2, the source told The Blaze. At least one other Trump supporter had contacted the Texas Secretary of State’s office to accept the paperwork on Monday despite it being an official holiday, the source added, but that became unnecessary once the paperwork was filed on Friday.

The same website had previously reported an effort to get The Donald on Texas’ ballot. This is a non-trivial thing, as PoliTex notes.

Texas has distinct and complex rules for establishing a third party in Texas and for running for president in the state. (One of the rules of establishing a minor party is that the name of the party can’t be more than three words so, presumably, the founders of the “Make America Great Again Party” will have to come up with something a little more snappy.) Many key Deadlines were recently changed after the US Supreme Court issued a stay on some of the political maps Texas planned to use for next year’s elections. Third party presidential candidates planning to get their names on Texas ballots normally have to gather signatures from thousands of Texas voters. A Trump supporter told the Blaze the paperwork establishing the third party needed to be in by Jan. 2.

Just ask Ralph Nader how big a deal this can be. I have no idea how seriously to take this, but if there really is something to it we’ll know more soon enough. The Chron’s Perry Presidential blog, Juanita, Hair Balls, PoliTex, and the Daily Kos have more.

Wait, you mean there’s a Democrat running for Senate?

There’s actually seven of them, but the Chron writes about the one with actual legislative experience.

Paul Sadler, a plaintiff’s lawyer who represented an East Texas district from 1991 to 2003 and who developed a reputation during his years in Austin as a savvy politician and an expert on school finance, filed two days after Sanchez announced his intention not to run. (Houston plaintiff’s lawyer Jason Gibson, a political neophyte, is among six other Democratic candidates, in addition to Sadler.)

Sadler, 56, knows the odds are stacked against him, not only because he’s a Democrat in a fervid red state but also because he won’t have the money to match the $30 million his likely Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is prepared to spend.

No matter, Sadler said during an interview in the book-lined study of his spacious home on the edge of Henderson, in Rusk County. “I know these people,” he said, referring to Dewhurst and the other Republican candidates. “I can do better than they can.”

The experts doubt he will get the chance.

“The next U.S. senator will be decided in the Republican primary,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. Sadler’s “only hope is that the candidate does something so atrociously wrong that it disqualifies him in the eyes of the voters. Realistically, I think there’s virtually zero chance of Sadler winning.”

“He’s a natural politician and was an excellent House member, well thought of, fair,” said Austin-based political consultant Bill Miller, “but it would be very tough to win the race. It’s tough being a Democrat in Texas.”

Sadler is undeterred.

“I know the people of this state are pretty independent, if you can get them to sit down and pay attention and look,” he said. “I mean, we elected a Republican, John Tower, when there wasn’t a statewide Republican. We elected Bill Clements governor of Texas when there wasn’t a statewide Republican. This state will look at individual candidates, and they will vote for the person they think will best represent them.”

It’s a nice thought, but the reason why money matters is because it’s hard to get nine million voters spread out across 268,000 square miles and nearly thirty media markets to even know who you are, let alone consider voting for you, without a lot of it. Heck, just getting your name out to half a million or so primary voters is an expensive challenge. Rick Noriega, who was a current State Representative when he ran for Senate in 2008, raised about four million bucks over the course of the cycle, and that didn’t buy very much. Still, if Sadler is the nominee, that’s a metric to benchmark him against, to see how seriously his campaign is taken by the sort of people who fund campaigns. I look forward to seeing his March report, as well as those of his competitors in the primary.

“Beyond DNA”

The Dallas Observer has a good story about the state of the exoneration business now that most of the cases involving DNA have been handled.

Since Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins took office in 2007, incidents of wrongfully convicted men being released from Texas prisons have become almost commonplace. Dramatic scenes of innocent men finally walking free from county courtrooms are like nectar to reporters, who churn out stories praising Watkins’ creation of his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, established in 2007 to review potential wrongful convictions. While most of these stories mention DNA testing and the fact that, unlike most counties, Dallas stored DNA evidence indefinitely, Duke’s case was different. Out of 17 exonerations in Dallas since 2007, his was one of only four cases without biological evidence, according to data from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

When Watkins became the county’s top prosecutor, he faced a backlog of about 500 cases involving DNA evidence that had previously been denied testing and that would, in many cases, prove guilt or innocence. In the first couple years of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s existence, DNA-based exonerations rolled out every few months. Most were old sexual assault cases in which semen from a rape kit was still available for modern-day tests. “The classic ‘DNA case’ is a stranger-on-stranger sexual assault. Nothing connects the defendant to the crime except for eyewitness ID obtained through questionable procedures, and the sexual assault kit is preserved years later,” says Mike Ware, who led the Conviction Integrity Unit from its inception until this summer.

After Ware resigned to return to private practice in Fort Worth, Russell Wilson, another long-time criminal defense attorney, took his place. Watkins’ first assistant, Terri Moore, also resigned this summer, and Michelle Moore, the public defender who worked with Watkins’ office on exonerations, left in October to help open a public defender’s office in Burnet County. Duke’s case was the first exoneration under the unit’s new leadership.

With all of the changes, Michelle Moore worries that the unit’s gears are sticking and cases that could be moving forward more quickly are stalled. “I think I see the tendency now to be overly cautious and it’s to the detriment of the innocent man,” she says.

“I get that sometimes it’s not as clear-cut as a simple DNA test, because that’s a gold standard, but there are cases … where there should be some things happening,” she says, though she wouldn’t mention any specifically, fearing they would take even longer. “[Russell Wilson] is a very well respected attorney; he’s the nicest man on the planet. I just want to see more action,” Moore says.

Granted, she concedes the system would naturally slow down as the DNA cases thin out and the question of guilt or innocence becomes thornier and more subjective. “I’ll be honest with you: We took the easiest cases first, the ones we could prove definitely by DNA testing,” Moore says, but she’s still concerned that the Conviction Integrity Unit is simply not visiting prisoners, administering polygraphs and calling victims as expediently as it once did.

In the meantime, the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?

“There’s been a strong shift,” Wilson says. DNA-based cases are still filtering through his office, but for the most part, he says, “the newer cases are non-DNA. … It’s a lot more fact-intensive.”

The good news about DNA exonerations is that they have freed a bunch of innocent men from prison, and that they have forced people to recognize the fact that there are unjustly convicted people in prison. The bad news is that DNA is a factor in only a small number of cases, and it was preserved as evidence in a small share of those cases, so if DNA evidence has become the de facto standard for triggering the exoneration process, a whole lot of other innocent people will be left behind. As Grits points out, there are still many arson cases that need review, and an untold number of people whose convictions were due in part to the no-discredited “scent lineups” of former Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pikett. On top of that, as the Michael Morton case has so clearly shown us, prosecutorial misconduct is another potentially large and under-explored factor in unjust convictions. Local defense attorney Robert Fickman wrote an op-ed on that topic, but did not include any actual policy prescriptions for how to deal with it. Clearly, depending on the State Bar won’t do much, so it’s up to the Lege, and they will need good guidance. There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure justice for those who have been wrongly convicted and those who could be in the future if nothing is done, and that work gets harder from here.

Another Lone Star Rail update

From the Statesman:

Commuter rail between San Antonio and Georgetown, at least as a legislatively sanctioned policy goal, will have its 15th birthday this spring. The tiny government agency created later to make it a reality is almost 9 years old.

The LSTAR rail line, despite millions of dollars spent already on various studies, remains mostly an aspiration. But officials with the Lone Star Rail District quietly have made progress over the past 15 months, reaching a preliminary agreement with Union Pacific that paves the way for the freight operator to cede its existing urban railroad to the passenger rail. They also narrowed to three the possible paths for an alternate freight line east of Austin.

The district has begun a $10 million federally required environmental study on the passenger line and just received a promise of $10 million from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for a similar study on the potential new Union Pacific freight line. Over the years, the district has received or been promised almost $60 million, mostly in federal and state grants, for various studies.

Where to find the money to build and operate the line, as always, remains the great unknown, with projected initial investment for the passenger and freight lines at $1.5 billion or more and annual operating costs in the tens of millions.

But district staff members, turning to a financing model for Central Texas toll roads over the past decade, now say they will look to the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the 115-mile, 16-station line from Georgetown, through downtown Austin, to San Antonio’s south side.

[…]

[Joe Black, Lone Star rail director and operations manager] and Alison Schulze, a district senior planner, gave some details of how the line might operate, based on studies and other research.

Initial fares likely would be about 18 cents a mile, Black said, or about $20 for a trip the length of the line. But he said that, just as with most transit agencies, there would be discounted fares for month passes.

A trip between downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio likely would take about 90 minutes — not high speed but considerably faster than Amtrak. Ridership in the beginning, the district estimates, would be 12,000 to 20,000 boardings a day, most of those would be much shorter jaunts to and from downtown Austin and San Antonio to the cities’ suburbs.

See here, here, and here for some background. The travel time makes it comparable to the Austin-Houston rail line, with the main difference from my perspective being that the Austin to San Antonio corridor makes more sense from a commuter perspective. Look at the proposed map – having places like New Braunfels and San Marcos in between, not to mention Georgetown and Pflugerville to the north, just about guarantees ridership through the day, as long as there’s some way to get where you’re going at the endpoints. By contrast, I don’t see that much demand to get to and from Hempstead or Brenham or Giddings for the Austin/Houston line. The price is attractive as well; there was no mention of that in the Austin/Houston study, but if it’s the same rate then the total would be about the same, since the line that doesn’t detour through College Station has 109 miles of track. Best guesstimate at this point for how long it will take to get up and running is five to seven years. Check back in 2017 or so and see where things stand then.