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January 21st, 2014:

Judicial Q&A: Steven Kirkland

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.)

Steven Kirkland

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

I am Judge Steven Kirkland and I am a Democratic candidate for Judge of the 113th Civil Judicial District Court in Harris County.

I grew up in West Texas. I moved to Houston to attend Rice University where I graduated in 1982. While at school, I got involved in Houston politics and have been involved ever since. I worked my way through law school as a paralegal at Texaco and attended school at night. In 1990, I earned a position litigating environmental cases for the company. In 1998, I left Texaco and represented residents of East Houston and Harris County in their lawsuit against the ship channel industries to clean up our air. I have also worked with Avenue Community Development Corporation to develop affordable housing. In 2001, Mayor Brown appointed me to serve as Municipal Court Judge where I served until elected to the 215th Civil District Court in 2008. I am currently in the City of Houston’s legal department representing Houston taxpayers.

You can learn more at www.kirklandforjudge.com.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 113th District court is a civil court hearing cases involving personal injury, property damages, contract disputes and other civil complaints.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The incumbent was appointed by Rick Perry after I left the bench in 2012. The other District Courts are held by folks who served with me, while I was on the bench from 2009-2012. We didn’t always agree, but, we did serve as resources to each other and develop personal relationships. Since I have no relationship with the current incumbent, I chose this Court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have 12 years of judicial experience, 24 years of legal experience and over thirty years of community service to the people of Houston and Harris County. I have represented individual homeowners, international oil companies and Houston taxpayers. I have been on all sides of the Courtroom and have the legal and life experiences to serve you fairly, efficiently and with compassion.

In my twelve years as a Judge I have presided over more than 750 jury trials of cases ranging from traffic tickets and car crashes to complex construction and financial disputes. I have adjudicated the rights of neighbors over a fence and cases of citizens exercising their rights to free speech. In every Court that I have served in, I have adopted procedures and programs to improve the process. In Municipal Courts, I created the Homeless Recovery Court that allows folks working their way out of homelessness to clear up old warrants by performing community service at their shelter or program instead of going to jail. In the District Court, I mandated e-filing in all cases filed in my Court. I withdrew reference of tax foreclosure cases to the tax master and instead handled those matters directly. All of these are cost saving measures that increase accessibility to the courts and transparency in the decisions.

In addition to my professional experience, there are many tools from my life experience I have used to be a good judge. I am a recovering alcoholic. Twenty nine years ago I faced addiction, turned my life around, and have not had any alcohol since. While this is a strength, it also means there is a past. Prior to recovery, I was arrested several times for drinking inappropriately. I was fortunate to have survived my drinking years without harming myself or anyone else physically, and have managed to make amends to all who I have harmed emotionally. I speak from experience when I say I believe in the power of people to learn from their mistakes and improve their lives. This experience is a source of humility and compassion that I have used every time I took the bench.

5. Why is this race important?

Our Democratic Campaign for the Courthouse is critical to Justice in Texas. The newspapers are full of stories of Republican judges doing things that just aren’t right. The Court of Criminal Appeals was closed at 5 PM preventing an appeal of the death penalty, a family Court judge signed orders presented by the Chair of the Republican Party that strip health benefits from families of City employees behind closed doors after hours, a Criminal Court Judge holds a mother in contempt and sends her to jail for shouting “thank you Jesus” when ruling favored her son, a Juvenile Judge takes a child away from a young mother for no reason other than making the child available for adoption. All of these are Republican judges and it shows they just don’t get it.

My candidacy itself is important to folks who value diversity. Currently there are no open LGBT judges in the District Courthouse and only one in the State of Texas.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have a passion for justice. This passion directs my politics, career and community choices and activities. All my life I have stood up for what is right and spoke out against and tried to change what is wrong. From my record, you know where my heart lies. My thirty years experience of activism and accomplishments in the community and the party shows its not just talk with me, I walk the walk.

Why not three?

Greg suggests a couple of tweaks to term limits.

Jolanda Jones

Jolanda Jones

» Fix the JoJo exclusion. The statute, as written, is amazingly short and simple:

Section 6a. – Limitation of terms.
No person, who has already served two full terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office.

The statute is also amazingly unequal in how it applies a qualification for office. So much so, that I’m curious if this inequality provides an opening for a legal challenge. Basically, the law says that some folks get to serve three full terms and some only get to serve two full terms. If a candidate loses re-election to their second term (ala Brenda Stardig and Helena Brown), you have an entirely different qualification for office than someone who lost re-election to their third term (ala Jolanda Jones and Al Hoang).

There haven’t been many parties aggrieved by this statute, so it seems to me that there might be improved odds of that happening now that we have two such individuals. I would think that there might be ground to make this application more equal by substituting equally simple language that limits any officeholder to no more than three full terms … period.

That may not address any deeper concerns about the Clymer Wright-era limitations. But it does offer an incremental cleanup. And if it were to go through a charter amendment vote, it might be an easy enough one that it opens the door for public perception to see that elected officials aren’t trying to change the rules they have to abide by in the middle of the game. If you’re not sure about the public appetite for altering term limits, this modification would be a good test run.

» Why not three? – Many Texas towns have three year terms. Why is there such an immediate impetus for four-year terms when there is already a more common model already being utilized throughout Texas? You could leave the term-limit language as-is or make the tweak above. Doing so would create a nine-year window of service for people.

More importantly, it would also open Houston City Council to the whims of bigger electorates. If you really wanted to see a different City Council, the easiest place to start has always been to hold the election on even-numbered years. District A would be quite a bit more Dem-friendly, as would District F. My own District J, as it turns out, is as close to 50-50 in terms of partisanship among city year voters. That tilt would be eviscerated with an even-year electorate and the district would be reliably Dem-leaning. The rotating cycle of seats would lead to a seat being up for a vote in two odd-numbered election years for each six-year cycle. So there is some moderation to those swings that might be appealing.

It would seem practical, under this scenario, to stagger the elections so that each individual year would see one-third of city seats up for a votes. I’m not sure who that may appeal to or be unappealing to, frankly. One positive that I can see from this is that it might lead to an increase in competition for seats. If an elected thought to run for Mayor one year after being elected to a council seat, they could. In short, there would no longer be an incentive to sit out six years when terms are the same – as they currently are for the office of Mayor and Controller.

I completely agree with the first point, and also think it would have a decent shot of being passed. I think everyone already thinks of the term limits law as being “three terms max” and not “three terms unless you leave after your second term, in which case only two terms”. I’d add that there’s a third former Council member affected by the current interpretation – Peter Brown, who resigned a few days early in 2009 in an attempt to circumvent this; City Attorney David Feldman opined against it. In any event, I think this minor change is very doable. It’s straightforward enough that the plain wording of the amended ordinance would be easy enough for voters to understand and hard to argue against. Heck, I don’t even know what the case against it would be. If we want to go small, as a first step or as an end unto itself, this is a good way to do it.

The second suggestion would be much more contentious. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a switch from three two-year terms to two three-year terms, or if it’s also intended to increase the overall allowable length of service while also addressing the concern about two year election cycles being too short, as the two four-year terms proposal was intended. If we were to go this route, I’d prefer the latter, but that may be a bridge too far. Here are the pros and cons of three-year terms as I see them.

Pro:

  • Higher turnout in at least half of city elections. Presidential years would exceed 50%, gubernatorial years would likely exceed 35%. Both are much higher than even high-turnout city elections have been.
  • As Greg notes, this would almost surely make city government more representative of the city’s demographics. In particular, I’d expect this to be a boon for Latino candidates, at least in the even-numbered years.
  • If you believe that two-year terms force Council members back into campaign mode too quickly, then having three-year terms should help alleviate that.
  • You may consider this a pro or a con, but having three-year terms would likely force some ambitious Council members to rethink their strategy for seeking other office, since the Texas constitution would require them to resign if they run for office with more than one year remaining on their current term. That’s just not an issue now with two-year terms, but it would be an issue at least some of the time with three-year terms.

Con:

  • That higher turnout will come entirely from people who otherwise would never vote in city elections. To put it gently, that could have an unpredictable effect on lower-profile and multi-candidate races.
  • Having city elections in partisan election years will necessarily make city elections more partisan. Sure, there are partisan elements to city elections now, with some races being more overt than others, but the non-partisan nature of our races now basically ensures that the vast majority of candidates run as inclusive/consensus types. I expect you’d see much harder D and R lines being taken in even years. Again, one may consider that to be more pro than con, but it would be a change.
  • Perhaps of greater concern is the likelihood that city races could get drowned out in a high-profile even year election. Imagine what city elections might look like this year, where we’re sure to get wall-to-wall ads in the Governor’s race for at least the entire month of October.
  • Large disparities in turnout between even and odd years could make for more turnover on Council, as a candidate that got elected under one scenario might well get swept out under the other, in each case with candidate quality not being a major factor.

I’m doing a lot of speculating here, and I could easily be wrong about some of these points, but I think they’re worth considering. Three-year terms would be a big change, some likely good and some maybe not so good. I still think a better answer is to get rid of term limits (which Greg also suggests) and to at least consider some form of public financing for campaigns. At the very least, I’d like to see a real conversation about what we think we’re getting out of imposing these particular limits on this one type of office. It’s been long enough now that I’m confident that “we’ve always done it this way” is the prevailing sentiment. Surely we can come up with something better than that.

Dan Patrick is lying about immigration and crime

That’s what the headline to Peggy Fikac’s column should be, but she took the easy way out.

At a forum where statewide candidates strutted their stuff for leading business groups, Sen. Dan Patrick could have focused on pretty much any angle when he talked about immigration.

There is the reality that people working here without documents are woven into the economy. There’s the question of how much responsibility businesses should bear for checking on prospective workers’ immigration status. There is the fact that key business leaders stymied so-called sanctuary city legislation in the 2011 legislative session.

Patrick – locked in a tough GOP primary fight for lieutenant governor in which candidates are positioned – chose to tie it to violent crime.

He pounded the need for border security by citing “hardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”

“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.

Violent crime is scary and if you’re a law-abiding person, you’re probably against it, no matter your stand on immigration.

But Patrick’s stark language could seem a counterpoint to concerns that Republicans’ future depends on the party attracting more support from the growing Hispanic population.

Can we put aside the politics of Patrick’s abhorrent assertions and focus for a minute on the fact that he’s lying through his teeth? Let’s start by pointing out that Texas’ total state prison population is about 150,000, with another ten to fifteen thousand state prisoners in county facilities. Are we to believe that over 90% of inmates in state prisons are not just immigrants but undocumented immigrants? Does he have a source for this “statistic”, other than perhaps one of his body cavities?

Patrick’s crime numbers are deeply suspect as well. I don’t know what time frame he has in mind, but for the entire five year period of 2008 through 2012, there were 6223 murders in Texas. According to the Census, foreign-born people made up 16.3% of the population of Texas during that same time period. Are we to believe that 16.3% of the population – at least some of whom are children and elderly folks – committed nearly 65% of the murders in Texas?

There’s no evidence that increased immigration causes an increase in crime. That’s true if you look at historic data, and it’s true if you look only at Mexican immigrants. It is true that second-generation immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than first-generation immigrants, but only at the rate of native-born Americans. Which is to say, they’re about as likely to commit a crime as your average Senator or talk radio host.

By the way, if you go back to that link about the volume of crime in Texas, you might notice that there were half as many murders committed in the state in 2012 as there were in 1979, despite the fact that the overall population of Texas is twice as much now as it was then. The per capita murder rate therefore declined from 16.7 per 100,000 people to 4.4 per 100,000 people. Unless you believe that all native-born Texans must be on the verge of sainthood these days, I don’t see how that is consistent with an immigrant-fueled violent crime wave.

But Dan Patrick doesn’t care about any of that. He’s got an election to win, and if spreading lies helps him win, then that’s what he’ll do. To be fair, he’s hardly alone is spreading this manure around the state, but he’s the most shameless about it. I’ll say again, when Bill Hammond and his business brethren actually oppose this sort of crap, then I’ll believe them when they say they’re pre-immigration reform. In the meantime, even in a story on political tactics, I expect better from Peggy Fikac. None of the links I provided was hard to find. She owed it to her audience to at least reference the truth.

School finance retrial starts today

Back in the saddle again.

A fight over the state’s controversial school funding system is headed back to court Tuesday before the same judge who declared it unconstitutional nearly a year ago, with state lawyers hoping they can persuade him that an infusion of new money and other legislative remedies have restored the requisite measure of equity to Texas’ classrooms.

But Judge John K. Dietz must also weigh arguments from attorneys representing hundreds of cash-strapped Texas school districts, who contend that $3.9 billion in education funding restored by the Legislature last year – still a billion and a half dollars less than the $5.4 billion cut in 2011 – has fallen far short of attaining the educational standards required by the state constitution. Dietz ruled in February 2012 that Texas did not adequately or equitably fund public schools. The 2011 funding cuts, he found, violated the constitution by preventing school district from exercising “meaningful discretion” in setting local tax rates.

The trial is expected to last up to four weeks.

See herer, here, and here for the previous entries. Everybody knows this is going to go back to the Supreme Court. The question is whether Judge Dietz buys the state’s arguments that the partial restoration of funds cut from 2011 plus the scaling back of standardized testing puts the finance system back into compliance, however temporary. For various and in most cases obvious reasons, the school districts as well as the poseurs at Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, who think the problem is too much money, don’t agree. I don’t either, but we’ll see what Judge Dietz thinks.