Author Archives: Emma Platoff

After four weeks, state Sen. Carlos Uresti’s criminal fraud case heads to the jury

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, walks into the federal courthouse in San Antonio on Monday morning, Feb. 12, 2018, as his trial continues.

SAN ANTONIO — If a businessman takes the ostrich approach — burying his head in the sand — to avoid evidence that his colleagues are perpetrating a fraud, is he also guilty of that fraud?

Probably — but state Sen. Carlos Uresti is no ostrich, defense attorneys insisted Tuesday morning in their last opportunity to sway the jury.

The San Antonio Democrat, who’s been on trial for the past month on 11 felony counts, including criminal fraud and money laundering, sat expressionless Tuesday morning as prosecutors and defense attorneys quibbled one last time over whether he was aware of the Ponzi scheme being perpetrated at the now-defunct oil field company FourWinds Logistics, where he served as general counsel, a 1 percent owner and a recruiter of investors, according to court documents.

That question is now in the hands of the jury, which began deliberations Tuesday afternoon in a case that has the potential to end Uresti’s career in the Senate.

Standing beneath several courtroom screens showing a colorful cartoon image of one of those ignorant ostriches, Uresti’s attorneys argued the government hadn’t proven that Uresti was aware of the company’s shady dealings — even aware enough to, ostrich-like, intentionally avoid learning more.

And, defense attorneys argued, the jury should take care not to convict Uresti because of preconceived biases against politicians.

The criminal justice system doesn’t convict people “because of foolishness, mistakes or negligence,” defense attorney Tab Turner said. “It takes intentional misconduct. It takes knowledge of a crime. They haven’t proven that knowledge. Don’t supply it for them because a senator’s sitting in the room.”

He paused. “That’s what elections are for.”

The animal metaphor came during closing arguments of the month-long trial. If convicted on any counts, the two-decade veteran of the Texas Legislature would be ineligible to continue serving his district, though he could keep his seat during appeals. He also faces jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Prosecutors have argued that Uresti knew about the company’s fraud scheme and that he was in possession of forged financial documents with obvious errors and omissions. Uresti was driven, prosecutors allege, by personal financial struggles to bring investors into a scheme he knew was fraudulent — and he used his reputation as a state legislator to lend credibility to the sketchy investment.

“It’s brought to his attention. He knows the documents are changing — ever-changing. They don’t add up. The sales presentations: lies, lies, lies. The bank statements that happen to perfectly address an investor concern,” said the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Blackwell. “With all that information available to him, he made a choice. He made a choice to bring others to this con man.”

To support their argument, over the last several weeks prosecutors have called more than 20 witnesses, including defrauded investors, former FourWinds associates and FBI personnel. Denise Cantu, the key government witness who lost about $800,000 to FourWinds’ scheme, testified earlier this month that Uresti leveraged their sexual relationship to persuade her to invest. Uresti has denied that they had an affair.

Defense attorneys have insisted throughout the trial that though fraud plagued FourWinds, Uresti was unaware and uninvolved. Uresti, they said, acted in good faith — and he, like FourWinds’ unfortunate investors, was misled by former CEO Stan Bates. Bates pleaded guilty to eight felonies last month.

“Not one person sat on that witness stand and said, ‘Carlos Uresti knew we were doing this,’” Turner told the jury Tuesday morning. “Not one witness.”

The government bore the burden of proving Uresti guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Arguing that prosecutors had not met this standard, the defense has asked U.S. District Judge David Ezra twice this month to dismiss the case.

Ezra refused both times. He told attorneys there was “a lot of telling evidence” against Uresti. The judge listened to most of the closing arguments Tuesday reclined in his chair with his arms folded over his chest.

Still, defense attorneys revisited that argument Tuesday morning, spending a large chunk of their argument time defining terms like “reasonable doubt” and criminal “intent” to demonstrate that the government had not sufficiently proven Uresti’s guilt.

Uresti is also set for trial in May on separate bribery charges.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on After four weeks, state Sen. Carlos Uresti’s criminal fraud case heads to the jury

He’s been a Texas Supreme Court justice for a month. Now Jimmy Blacklock must become a candidate.

Gov. Greg Abbott swears in Jimmy Blacklock to replace Don Willett on the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2017. Blacklock previously served as the governor's general counsel.

Jimmy Blacklock is new to this — so new that the card outside his Texas Supreme Court office still has the old occupant’s name on it; so new to the court that even his extensive collection of law books has yet to completely fill the wood shelves of his sunny office on the Capitol grounds; so new that the velcro hanging strips stuck on his walls do not yet bear decorations.

Blacklock, 37, has experience with the law — he boasts stints in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the state attorney general’s office and as general counsel to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. But 2018 marks the first year he’ll sit on the bench. And it will also be his first time running a campaign — at least since his successful bid to lead the Yale Law Republicans (an uncontested race, as he recalls).

Abbott appointed Blacklock to the state Supreme Court last month to fill a seat vacated by former Justice Don Willett, who left the state court to join the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Willett’s term expires at the end of this year, thrusting Blacklock immediately into a partisan campaign to keep the new post.

In that race, he’ll have to walk a familiar but ill-defined line, one his predecessors have become accustomed to treading. On the bench, he’ll be expected to serve as an impartial arbiter of justice — but on the side, he’ll have to wage a partisan campaign to keep his seat in an increasingly polarized state.

Abbott gave him considerable room for error by selecting — and expressing his strong support for — Blacklock just before the filing deadline for the 2018 elections. That helped keep the field clear of Republican primary challengers, including one who had initially announced plans to run upon Willett’s confirmation.

But Blacklock’s long-term future still requires a delicate balance that all judges in Texas must strike: Lean your weight too far on one side of that line and you risk your prized impartiality, or at least the appearance of it; fall off toward the other and you could fall out of favor with the Republican base.

While working for Abbott, Blacklock fought on behalf of Texas leadership on many of the state’s most divisive partisan issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act. Now, he says he’s ready to transition from advocate to arbiter.

“Most everybody who comes to the bench having been a lawyer has worked on all kinds of issues and advocated for all kinds of clients,” Blacklock said in an interview last week. “When you take that hat off and put on the judicial robe, you swear a solemn oath to the Constitution, to perform that role fairly and impartially — to look only to the laws and the Constitution.”

But Blacklock has already put toes on either side of that line. On his website, he touts his “conservative record” advocating for the “right to life,” the Second Amendment and religious liberty. He also pledges to “never exceed the limited role assigned to the judiciary” — to take each case on its merits “accurately and impartially.”

In the last several days, Blacklock’s website has undergone numerous changes, including the removal of phrases like “lifelong conservative Republican” and “Republican from a young age,” as well as references to his work as a Republican precinct chairman and election judge. A page titled “Jimmy’s Conservative Record” — a link that used to appear on his website’s home page — is no longer prominently featured, though the page remains live.

Blacklock said Monday that he and his staff “just needed to simplify and streamline the website.”

And while Abbott is helping him politically, Blacklock’s old boss isn’t helping him project impartiality. Last month, Blacklock joined Abbott at the annual “Texas Rally For Life,” where the newly-minted justice’s presence was unusual, although not unheard of. More striking were the governor’s remarks about his appointee.

Abbott had already praised Blacklock as something of a known quantity. In November, he said,  “I wanted to make sure that the person I appointed was going to make decisions that I know how they are going to decide.” But before a crowd of several thousand in Austin, the governor added specificity to that praise.

“I don’t have to guess or wonder how Justice Blacklock is going to decide cases because of his proven record of fighting for pro-life causes,” Abbott said.

That was a disturbing statement for some lawyers, legal ethicists and judges — especially given Abbott’s past as a Texas Supreme Court justice himself. The Texas Supreme Court rarely hears abortion-related cases. Even still, any indication that a judge has pre-decided an outcome could cross a bright legal line.

“The governor should know better. The governor is essentially saying: ‘Let me tell you, this guy will always rule in a certain way,’” said James Alfini, the former dean of South Texas College of Law Houston and the co-author of Judicial Conduct and Ethics, a guide for judges. “And that’s wrong. Just plain wrong. He’s basically destroyed any image of impartiality on that issue that he might have.”

In his undecorated office last week, Blacklock walked those statements back on behalf of his mentor.

“What I take the governor to mean — what I know he means — is that, because I worked for him for many years, he is confident that I mean what I say when I talk about my judicial philosophy,” Blacklock said. “I will be the kind of judge who looks only to the text of the Constitution and the text of the laws, and does not go beyond that to impose my own personal views on these cases.”

Blacklock’s difficult position is nothing new. Partisan judicial elections in Texas have long drawn criticism, with some of the harshest words coming from former and sitting justices themselves. Texas is one of just seven states that elects Supreme Court justices in partisan races.

In recent years, there have been several legal and legislative challenges to the current system. Just this week, a case went to trial in federal court over the issue, questioning whether the statewide system of judicial elections dilutes the voting power of Texas Latinos.

Nathan Hecht, the state Supreme Court’s current chief, criticized partisan elections in his 2017 State of the Judiciary speech, saying “judicial independence is the casualty” of an increasingly harsh political climate. And Willett, Blacklock’s predecessor, was one of the most vocal critics.

“Our imperfect system requires judicial candidates to put on their game face, get over their delicate sensibilities, and run unabashedly the way Texas law defines them: as politicians,” Willett told the San Antonio Express-News in 2012. He added that “how you run should never impact how you rule.”

But even Willett ran explicitly partisan campaigns himself. In a 2012 campaign ad, Willett touted his reputation as the state’s “most conservative justice,” and “the judicial remedy to Obamacare.” He also said he “fought the liberals” who wanted to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Blacklock wouldn’t weigh in on the system of partisan elections — when asked, he chewed on his words carefully and highlighted the need to balance judicial independence with accountability to voters.

“This is the system we have in our Constitution,” he said.

Whatever he thinks of that method, it will shape his work off the court — and he’ll be expected to keep it from affecting his work on the court.

“The main challenge is balancing the important work of the court with the demands of the campaign,” Blacklock said. “I swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution by applying the law to these cases to the best of my ability. That has to be my primary focus at all times — even though I’m running for office.”

“It doesn’t leave time for hanging things on the walls,” he said with a laugh.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on He’s been a Texas Supreme Court justice for a month. Now Jimmy Blacklock must become a candidate.

Paul Pressler, former Texas judge and religious right leader, accused of sexually assaulting teen for years

Paul Pressler, retired justice of the Texas 14th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

A former Texas state judge and lawmaker has been accused of sexually abusing a young man for several decades starting when the boy was just 14, according to a lawsuit filed in October in Harris County.

The lawsuit alleges that Paul Pressler, a former justice on the 14th Court of Appeals who served in the Texas state house from 1957–59, sexually assaulted Duane Rollins, his former bible study student, several times per month over a period of years. According to the filing, the abuse started in the late 1970s and continued less frequently after Rollins left Houston for college in 1983.

In a November court filing, Pressler “generally and categorically [denied] each and every allegation” in Rollins’ petition.

The abuse, which consisted of anal penetration, took place in Pressler’s master bedroom study, the suit alleges. According to the lawsuit, Pressler told Rollins he was “special” and that the sexual contact was their God-sanctioned secret.

Pressler is a leading figure on the religious right in Texas and was a key player in the “conservative resurgence” of Southern Baptism, a movement in the 1970s and 1980s that aimed to oust liberals and moderates from the church’s organizational structure. Pressler’s wife Nancy, his former law partner Jared Woodfill, Woodfill Law Firm, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and First Baptist Church of Houston are also named as defendants in the suit.

Rollins seeks damages of over $1 million.

When asked about the suit, Ted Tredennick, Pressler’s attorney, pointed to Rollins’ record, which is peppered with arrests on DUIs and other charges over the last several decades.

“Mr. Rollins is clearly a deeply troubled man, with a track record of multiple felonies and incarceration, and it is the height of irresponsibility that anyone would present such a bizarre and frivolous case — much less report on it,” Tredennick said. He would not give any further comment or respond to specific questions.

Rollins and his lawyer, Daniel Shea, say his past legal troubles stemmed from behavior fueled by alcohol and drug addictions sparked by the childhood sexual abuse. In 1998, Rollins was jailed for 10 years on burglary charges. Pressler advocated for Rollins to receive parole in 2000, when he was first eligible, and then again in 2002. In his 2002 letter to the parole board, Pressler pledged to employ Rollins and be “personally involved in every bit of Duane’s life with supervision and control.”

Woodfill called the accusations against Pressler “absolutely false” and described the lawsuit as “an attempt to extort money.” He also said he plans to file counter charges against Rollins and his lawyer for a “frivolous and harassing lawsuit.”

Shea said Pressler previously settled with Rollins over a 2004 battery charge for an incident in a Dallas hotel room. That settlement is not public, Shea said, but reference is made to such an agreement in recent court filings.

Shea said that though Rollins filed that assault charge more than a decade ago, he had a “suppressed memory” of the sexual abuse until he made an outcry statement to a prison psychologist in November 2015. Harvey Rosenstock, a psychiatrist who has been working with Rollins since August 2016, wrote in a letter included in the suit that Rollins is a “reliable historian for the childhood sexual trauma to which he was repeatedly and chronically subjected.”

Pressler was President George H.W. Bush’s pick to lead the Office of Government Ethics  in 1989, but the administration ultimately ruled Pressler out after an FBI background investigation. News reports from the time suggest that Pressler was dismissed due to unspecified ethics issues.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Paul Pressler, former Texas judge and religious right leader, accused of sexually assaulting teen for years

Texas prisons ban over 10,000 books. An Israeli diplomat wants to know why Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is allowed.

Donald Trump’s decision Wednesday to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is likely to shake up the Middle East for years to come. In the meantime, a quieter Israeli foreign relations conflict has sprung up in the southwestern United States: Israeli Consul General Gilad Katz vs. the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. 

Katz hadn’t even arrived at his Houston office on Monday morning when, scanning the headlines in Israeli media, he learned that Adolf Hitler’s infamous manifesto Mein Kampf is permitted in Texas prisons. Meanwhile, a slate of uncontroversial classics — including titles like Where’s Waldo? Santa Spectacular and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple — are among more than 10,000 books banned in Texas lock-ups.

“I thought, ‘I have to do something,’” Katz said.

On Tuesday, he penned a letter to Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Dale Wainwright expressing his deep concern.

“We feel it is inappropriate to include a book from such [a] notorious leader of one of the most murderous regimes in history,” Katz wrote.

He hasn’t yet heard back. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not immediately respond to The Texas Tribune’s request for comment.

Texas’ policies on prison reading have long been criticized as arbitrary — even bordering on censorship. When a list of the prison system’s banned books was released last month, Texas free speech and criminal justice advocates called out the department for its seemingly subjective decisions.

Books may be banned from Texas prisons for containing certain sexual content, information about the manufacturing of various weapons or material that could be used to execute a criminal scheme, among other factors.

Jason Clark, the department’s deputy chief of staff, told The Dallas Morning News last month that “Mein Kampf is on the approved list because it does not violate our rules.”

Mein Kampf, which translates to “my struggle,” was written while Hitler himself was in prison, and forecasts the murderous dictator’s plans for the Holocaust. The manifesto’s place in public dialogue has long been disputed. Along with a pair of books authored by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, it is one of the most controversial titles allowed in Texas prisons.

Katz said that although the policy governs Texas inmates, it is “very, very disturbing” to Israelis.

“Letting [prison inmates] read Mein Kampf is not moral. It’s just not moral,” Katz told the Tribune on Wednesday.

Katz said he hopes to meet with Wainwright to discuss a potential policy change, but isn’t sure what steps he’ll take beyond that.

See a full list of banned books in The Dallas Morning News

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas prisons ban over 10,000 books. An Israeli diplomat wants to know why Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is allowed.

Trump nominating Ryan Patrick, son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to be U.S. attorney

Former Houston prosecutor and district judge Ryan Patrick is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's son.

President Donald Trump is nominating former state District Judge Ryan Patrick, son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to be the next U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, the White House announced Wednesday.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Patrick will become the top federal prosecutor in one of the busiest districts in the country. The Southern District, which includes Houston, Galveston and Corpus Christi, represents 43 counties, 8.3 million people and 44,000 square miles of the Lone Star State.

Patrick graduated from Baylor University and South Texas College of Law in Houston before working for six years as an assistant district attorney in Harris County. In 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Patrick to the 177th state district court in Harris County. But Patrick returned to private practice after losing that seat in November to Democrat Robert Johnson.

Patrick would replace Abe Martinez, a career civil servant who has served as acting U.S. attorney since March, when President Donald Trump asked for the resignation of dozens of U.S. attorneys across the country, including Kenneth Magidson, an Obama appointee who had filled the role since 2011.

Posted in Latest, National, State | Comments Off on Trump nominating Ryan Patrick, son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to be U.S. attorney

State Rep. Victoria Neave pleads no contest to June DWI charge

Mugshot of state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, arrested for DWI in Dallas late Tuesday, June 6.

State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, said Friday she had pleaded no contest to a June charge of driving while intoxicated.

Neave was arrested June 6 in Dallas after she struck a tree in the Lakewood neighborhood, police said. Court documents say her blood-alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

Neave tweeted Friday that she will pay a fine, be put on probation for 12 months, have her license suspended, submit to random alcohol testing, take a DWI education class and attend a victim impact panel.

“Earlier this year, I disappointed my family, my constituents, my supporters, and myself,” the tweet read. “I said then the responsibility was mine and that I would accept the consequences … I accept full responsibility and will continue to work to demonstrate that I have learned from my past.”

The 36-year-old lawmaker represents parts of Dallas, Mesquite and Garland, and she serves on the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence as well as the House Committee on County Affairs.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on State Rep. Victoria Neave pleads no contest to June DWI charge

Now you can carry any knife (almost) anywhere in Texas

Cliff Hill, knife collector and world champion knife thrower, shows his collection at the International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame in Austin on July 13, 2017.

There is no such thing as an “illegal knife” in Texas.

Dirks and daggers, stilettos and poniards, even machetes and swords can now legally be carried just about anywhere — even “down Congress Avenue,” said state Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock, the author of House Bill 1935, the law that made it so beginning Sept. 1.

HB 1935 effectively eliminates prohibitions on where certain knives can be carried by getting rid of the category of “illegal knives,” a designation critics called ambiguous. Under the new law, a smaller subset of newly dubbed “location restricted” knives will be prohibited in places like college buildings and bars.

Previously, knives with blades longer than five-and-a-half inches, as well as Bowie knives and a few other types, could not be legally carried outside the home. The new statute expands knife owners’ freedoms, advocates said, and also eliminates a great deal of confusion. Bowie knives, for example, were designated “illegal” under the previous law, but they were not legally defined.

Oversights like these made it difficult for knife owners to know whether they were in compliance with the law, “making criminals of people who had no intention of doing anything wrong,” Frullo said.

Todd Rathner, director of legislative affairs for the national organization Knife Rights, said the law’s significance stretches beyond practical concerns.

“Texans carry all kinds of knives for all kinds of purposes, whether it’s working on a ranch or opening envelopes in an office. So they want to be able to know that whatever knife they stick in their pocket or hang on their belt, that it’s legal,” Rathner said. “There’s also principle involved: In the United States of America, we have the Second Amendment right to bear arms — it doesn’t say ‘guns,’ it says ‘arms.’”

Cliff Hill, the owner of an Austin knife shop, said he appreciates the expanded protections HB 1935 offers knife enthusiasts.

An amendment restricting knives in certain locations — beyond college campuses, certain knives are also prohibited from jails as well as from certain bars and hospitals — was added to the law in the wake of a deadly stabbing this May on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Police said junior biology major Kendrex White used a “large, Bowie-style hunting knife” to kill one fellow student, Harrison Brown, and wound three others. HB 1935 passed the House a week after the tragedy.

The measure faced very little opposition in either chamber.

“The safety concern here was too great for me to vote favorably on this legislation without more debate,” said state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, one of only a handful of legislators who voted against the bill.

But Frullo said that the law does not increase danger, arguing that knife threats are most likely to come from individuals who weren’t following the laws anyway.

“Definitely, knives can be used as a weapon, but also they have a lot of other practical purposes,” Frullo said. “The fact of whether or not we have a law is not going to change whether somebody is doing something bad.”

Rathner said he aims to push in future sessions for legislation that would eliminate the location restrictions entirely.

Cliff Hill, a competitive knife thrower and the owner of an Austin knife-sharpening store, said changing this law doesn’t mean “that you’re going to see people walking around with swords hanging off their belt.” Instead, he said, it makes it easier for enthusiasts like him to pursue their hobbies without breaking the law.

For example, when Hill takes his collection of blades to a knife-throwing competition or to teach a knife-throwing class, he’s been “driving illegal.”

“I think it’s good in that sense,” he said. “If I’m on my way to teach a class, how am I not going to have throwing knives with me, you know?”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Now you can carry any knife (almost) anywhere in Texas

Texas Democrats lay out their own special session priorities

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, attempts to add an amendment to SJR 2 advocating for Texas to join a Convention of States on May 4, 2017. Turner's try at an amendment,  to force the resignation of federal officials caught cooperating with the Soviets,  failed to pass. 

House and Senate Democrats on Monday unveiled their priorities for the upcoming special legislative session, including some measures that fall in line with the agenda Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his call and some that depart entirely from it.

In a joint press conference, Democratic leaders in both chambers vowed to champion the issues “that matter to all Texans,” and to fight for legislation that will protect “our kids, our economy, our health and our communities.” Priorities for the Democrats include school finance reform and reducing maternal mortality — both of which are on Abbott’s list in some capacity. Several other issues, including criminal justice reform and equal pay, are not — and are unlikely to make it to the floor for a vote.

Though they trotted out an ambitious list of legislative priorities, Democrats will likely spend much of the next month playing defense against measures like the so-called “bathroom bill,” a special session priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that Democrats have called discriminatory. There were even rumblings earlier this summer that Democrats might skip town in an attempt to derail the special session.

State. Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said he hopes the governor will consider formally adding some Democratic priorities to the special session agenda, criticizing many of the current agenda items as “dangerous,” “divisive” or “non-issues.”

“If we’re going to have this costly special session, we ought to use it to get some real work done for the people of Texas,” Turner said, adding that “there’s nothing to prevent” legislation outside Abbott’s special session call from being filed, heard in hearings, debated on the floor and even passed.

State. Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, criticized Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick‘s focus on measures that did not pass the regular session, including the controversial “bathroom bill.” Rodriguez also said that Senate Republicans do not have enough votes to suspend certain chamber rules, a move that allows legislation to pass through the Republican-dominated chamber more quickly.

“We’re going to be spending taxpayer dollars for 30 days. Let’s spend our time on measures that actually matter to people, that move peoples’ lives forward,” Rodriguez said.

Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to address school funding and teacher pay — though lawmakers on opposing sides of the aisle disagree on how best to go about doing it. Patrick last week laid out a proposal to fund teacher bonuses using money from the Texas lottery, and House Speaker Joe Straus has supported a bill that would’ve injected $1.5 billion into public schools — a measure that could reappear in the special session. Democrats on Monday advocated for increasing the state’s share of the education budget, and also for funding teacher pay increases through the Rainy Day Fund.

“Everyone knows the school finance system is broken,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who filed House Joint Resolution 18, a constitutional amendment that would require the state to supply at least 50 percent of the public education system budget — as opposed to 38 percent in the current year. 

And state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said the legislation she filed to address high rates of maternal mortality in Texas should be somewhere “we can all find common ground.”

“We have to do something to save our mothers,” Thierry said.

Still, some Democratic priorities described Monday are unlikely to enjoy bipartisan support — or even see much debate, as presiding officers in both chambers are unlikely to refer such bills to committee, and any measures not on the governor’s formal call could be easily shot down by administrative points of order. These measures included bills to close the gender wage gap, increase the state’s minimum wage, expand voting by mail and increase the age of criminal responsibility. One measure, state Rep. Ramon Romero‘s House Bill 53, targets the so-called “show me your papers” bill signed into law this past legislative session.

Both houses will gavel in at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas Democrats lay out their own special session priorities

Austinite and former intern for House Speaker Straus killed in Greece

Bakari Henderson, a 22-year-old Austin native, was killed in Greece on July 7.

A 22-year-old Austin resident and former intern at the Texas Capitol was killed Friday in a bar fight in Greece. Eight people have been arrested in the attack.

Bakari Henderson, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona who was an intern in House Speaker Joe Straus‘ office, was vacationing on the Greek island of Zakynthos when he was approached by another customer in a bar. The confrontation quickly turned into a fistfight, and the two were asked to go outside the bar, where the fighting continued, according to the Washington Post.

Henderson was beaten even after he was unconscious, according to a Greek news agency. He died at a nearby hospital.

Seven Serbian nationals and one Greek were arrested in connection with the attack, the Post reported.

Henderson’s family told news outlets he was in Greece to work on a photo shoot for a new clothing line he planned to launch.

“Bakari loved spending time with family and friends, traveling, and meeting new people. He was a big thinker and enjoyed coming up with new business ventures,” his family said in a statement Friday. “Bakari was an inspiration to all he met. He loved life and lived it to the fullest.”

Henderson, who studied finance and entrepreneurship in college, spent the summer after his freshman year interning at the Capitol, for both Straus and the Texas Senate.

The State Department confirmed the death and said in a statement that officials are “providing consular assistance,” as well as “sincerest condolences,” to Henderson’s family.

Several Arizona politicians expressed their grief at the attack. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said on Twitter that he is working with the State Department to ensure that Henderson’s friends get home safely. 

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Austinite and former intern for House Speaker Straus killed in Greece

Why one of the largest counties in Texas is going back to paper ballots

Frank Phillips spent last Wednesday staring down 600 boxes of election materials — voted ballots, blank ballots, precinct records — sitting in a warehouse run by Denton County. After sitting in storage for the legally required periods — up to nearly two years in some cases — the roughly 24,000 pounds of paper were finally ready to be shredded.

Yet despite the hassle — and the significant cost — Phillips, Denton County’s elections administrator, is looking forward to this fall, when he will implement the county’s newest voting plan: a complete return to the paper ballot.

The unusual move sets Denton, the ninth-largest county in Texas and one of the fastest-growing, apart from the state’s other biggest counties, which all use some form of electronic voting, according to data collected by the Secretary of State’s office. Both Bexar and Harris Counties, for example, have had all electronic voting systems in place for 15 years.

Denton has been using a hybrid voting system that employs both electronic and paper ballots for about a decade. But county officials recently approved spending just shy of $9 million to buy new voting equipment from Austin-based Hart InterCivic that will return to an entirely paper-based system in time for this year’s November elections. Even disabled voters, who will cast their votes on touch-screen machines, will have their ballots printed out and tallied through a print scanner.

The move comes months after a disastrous election day for Denton County in November, with machines inadvertently set to “test mode” instead of “election mode,” long lines, problems with scanning paper ballots, and, ultimately, incorrect tabulations. Phillips — who was working in nearby Tarrant County at the time — said it was the personnel, not the machines, that caused chaos last fall. But voters in town, as well as leaders with the local Democratic and Republican parties, called for a return to paper ballots in the months following election day.

“The question always comes: ‘How do I know that when I cast my ballot it’s recorded electronically?’” Phillips said. “We know it’s recorded correctly because of our testing methods, but that question has persisted ever since we started using electronic voting. With the political climate these days, it’s even more heightened right now.” 

And these aren’t just any paper ballots, Phillips emphasized. The new Hart system Denton purchased allows election administrators to print ballots on demand, eliminating the waste and cost of over-printing paper ballots in advance of an election and then having to expend resources storing those unused ballots afterward to comply with state or federal regulations. It also prevents the problem of under-printing paper ballots — an issue that emerged last year when Titus County saw a higher-than-expected turnout for the presidential primary, and officials were forced to create and hand-count ballots on election day. 

Denton County’s switch back to paper ballots is unusual in both the state and the country, though it’s difficult to identify any real trend, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. In recent years, an increasing number of counties have explored new voting technologies while purchasing equipment to replace outdated machines purchased years ago with federal funds allocated through the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

Other counties have moved in the opposite direction, from hybrid voting systems to full digital ones. In Bexar County, for example, Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said voters “absolutely love” the all-electronic system that has been in place since 2002. In counties like Bexar, paper balloting is only used for mail-in ballots.

Still, paper isn’t entirely dead, even in Texas’s biggest counties. Bruce Sherbet, the elections administrator for Collin County — which currently uses all-electronic ballots — said as his office looks ahead to purchasing new voting equipment in the next year or two, it is “keeping all options open” and could return to a hybrid system

“There are some people that prefer a paper ballot, there’s no question about that,” Sherbet said.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Why one of the largest counties in Texas is going back to paper ballots

Trump has left 17 legal vacancies in Texas

In the last three weeks alone, President Donald Trump has nominated dozens of people to positions across the federal government, sending appointees everywhere from circuit courts to ambassadors’ residences, from Alabama to Singapore.

But none of those nods sent new leadership in the direction of Texas, where all four U.S. attorney seats, 11 district judgeships and two slots on the historically conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sit open. 

While Trump’s appointments process has been slow going overall — as of June 20, 2009, President Barack Obama had appointed about twice as many people as Trump had by the same date this year — the current White House is not entirely to blame. All but one of these 17 vacancies opened under Obama. And when it comes to appointing U.S. attorneys, at least, Trump’s first nomination on June 12 was not unusually slow: Obama nominated his first U.S. attorney on May 15, 2009; it took President George W. Bush until Aug. 1, 2001.

Loading…

Still, the absences are particularly noticeable in Texas, which contains the most U.S. attorney districts of any state. The Southern District of Texas is the busiest in the country, prosecuting more cases than any other, and the Western District shares a 660-mile border with Mexico. Of the 51 federally designated “judicial emergencies” across the country, nine are in Texas. One chair has been vacant since 2011.

For a self-described “law-and-order” president, these vacancies should be urgent, legal experts said.

“Texas is a big state with a lot of serious law enforcement problems, where many of the issues that the Trump administration purports to care about get played out,” said David Sklansky, who co-directs Stanford University’s Criminal Justice Center. “So you would think that if the administration was seriously interested in really addressing these problems as opposed to just talking about them and using them politically, they would want presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys in place as quickly as possible.”

U.S. attorneys are political appointees selected by the president and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and they play a critical role as the nation’s top federal prosecutors. When political appointees resign at the start of a new presidential term, as has become customary, their seats are temporarily filled by senior, nonpartisan civil servants who handle daily operations but tend to wield less power for implementing long-term strategic visions. Three acting U.S. attorneys in Texas — John Parker, Richard Durbin and Brit Featherston — all said their offices continue to aggressively prosecute cases but acknowledged that a political appointee would carry more clout.

In a state like Texas, where many of the new president’s stated priorities — border security, immigration, drug trafficking — are particularly pressing, these roles seem urgent to the new administration. U.S. attorneys do not have the power to disobey Department of Justice directives, but there is enormous prosecutorial discretion in the position, experts and U.S. attorneys themselves agreed.

The most common explanation for delays in political appointments is partisan obstruction — experts, for example, attribute the dearth of Texas appointments during Obama’s tenure to friction between the former president and the state’s two U.S. senators. But given the new political alignment between Trump and Republican senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, the lag is harder to explain.

Legal experts speculated that the delay could be due to disagreements between the two senators or attributed it to the Trump administration’s lack of a “deep bench” of potential appointees. Both Cruz and Cornyn have legal backgrounds and serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Hugh Brady, director of the University of Texas School of Law’s Legislative Lawyering Clinic, pointed out that the Trump Administration might be less worried about the temporary U.S. attorneys in Texas than those in, say, Massachusetts. And because of Texas’s overall rightward bent, it is less likely to be the “scene of constitutional litigation” that opponents file against the president, Brady said — perhaps making a stacked judiciary in Texas less important than a White House-appointed bench in a more liberal state.

The White House, the Department of Justice and spokespeople for Cornyn and Cruz all declined to comment on a timeline for any potential nominations. But Cornyn told a reporter last week that names for the 5th Circuit nominees could come “literally any day now.” 

Loading…

In Texas, a bipartisan commission called the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee takes a first pass at applicants interested in such spots and then makes recommendations to the senators. That group interviewed scores of candidates, and completed its work in April, members said.

But David Prichard, a San Antonio lawyer and the chairman of that committee, said he is not surprised that Trump has not yet made nominations.

“We have to realize that [some of these] are lifetime appointments, and they carry a lot of power, so getting it right is pretty important,” he said.

Trump announced eight nominations for U.S. attorney slots on June 12, naming only one — Justin Herdman of Ohio — who required approval from a Democratic senator through the informal “blue-slip” process. Trump has also announced a slew of nominees for judicial positions.

Those judicial vacancies are arguably the most pressing because there are no interim judges to step in. Understaffing of the federal bench has long plagued Texas, and it’s an urgent issue, experts said.

The openings can mean petitioners have to wait, and, as the old adage goes, “justice delayed is justice denied,” said Raul Gonzalez, a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and the vice chairman of the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee.

“I wish there was a way to speed it up,” Gonzalez said. “I really don’t know what the bottleneck is. We do our work, and then we’re done with it and then we just wait and see.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Trump has left 17 legal vacancies in Texas

Why a Colorado case over “religious refusals” could matter to Texas

When the U.S. Supreme Court rules next year on a religious refusal case that started in 2012 at a bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, its decision could have reverberations in Texas.

The court announced Monday that it will take up Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, agreeing to weigh in on whether a baker can legally refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his religious objections to their union.

At the heart of the case is the question of religious refusal, an issue that also dominated the Texas Legislature’s most recent session — most notably with House Bill 3859, a new law that allows welfare providers citing “sincerely held religious beliefs” to deny adoptions and other services to LGBT people.

It’s not yet clear how the high court’s decision could impact LGBT rights in Texas, especially because the legal basis for religious refusal is entirely different in the two states. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case is rooted in a law in Colorado that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, ancestry or religion, but Texas is one of five states that does not have such a law on the books.

Still, the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case after declining to hear a similar religious refusal case in New Mexico three years ago suggests to legal experts that it may be time for a national reckoning on the issue of religious refusals — major news for a state that this session raised, by some counts, 17 bills that would have allowed for discrimination on the grounds of religious freedom.

Lawrence Sager, a constitutional theorist and the former dean of the University of Texas School of Law, said that while the court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop will not have direct legal bearing on Texas’ HB 3859, it could have important implications for the future of religious refusals in the state.

If the Colorado baker wins at the high court, his victory would create “enormous momentum” behind religious refusal legislation, Sager said. If Phillips loses his appeal, the decision would not make all religious refusal laws unconstitutional, but it “would take some of the wind out of the sails of that effort,” Sager said.

In either case, one of the most divisive issues of the Texas Legislature’s 85th session will have been catapulted to national prominence.

“The issue is a brewing one … It’s been going on everywhere,” Sager said. “This is a kind of issue that at some point was going to be hard for the court not to address.”

For at least some LGBT advocates, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case has caused concern. Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer Pizer, who authored the organization’s friend-of-the-court brief in the original Colorado case and also worked against Texas’ HB 3859, said that in recent years, the Supreme Court has refused to hear appeals of several state cases which ruled in favor of anti-discrimination statutes over religious refusal laws.

The court’s taking up the issue now suggests at least the possibility that it would alter federal constitutional standards. And changing those federal standards could cut “big religious holes” in local protections for LGBT people, Pizer said.

“We think that the state courts have been getting it right,” Pizer said. “It’s alarming that the Supreme Court would decide to take this. The implications are potentially staggering.”

Another case to watch is Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, a religious refusal law that permits businesses and government employees to deny services to LGBT individuals, which the Human Rights Campaign has dubbed “the worst anti-LGBTQ state law” in the country. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week lifted an injunction blocking the law, which allows the adoption religious refusal alongside several others, from taking effect. But experts said the law will almost certainly be challenged again once it is implemented, and that litigation will likely set a more direct precedent for any challenge to Texas’s HB 3859.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Why a Colorado case over “religious refusals” could matter to Texas

Abbott proposal would nullify city rules on distracted driving

Last month, Texas became the 47th state to pass a statewide texting-while-driving ban. Now, with a special legislative session approaching, Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing for legislation that could roll back stricter mobile phone laws already in place in more than three dozen Texas cities.

Complaining of a “patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas,” Abbott called last week for a measure that would pre-empt local ordinances that go beyond the statewide texting ban.

The ban, signed into law last week and set to take effect Sept. 1, pre-empts only local regulations relating to a driver’s ability to “read, write, or send an electronic message.” The broader pre-emption Abbott favors would block local governments from “any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles,” effectively nullifying tougher cellphone regulations in about 40 Texas cities — including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — where drivers are required to use hands-free devices for phone calls.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who authored the texting-while-driving measure, said he would oppose such pre-emption both because it could weaken mobile usage laws and because he believes the issue should be left to local governments.

“When it comes to driver use of cellular devices, I think the cities and the locals ought to have the right to do what they want to do,” Craddick said.

Police departments in several cities that currently regulate all handheld cellphone use emphasized that hands-free ordinances play an important role in public safety.

“Holding your phone in your hand is still some kind of distraction,” Corpus Christi Senior Officer Travis Pace said. 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the law’s Senate sponsor, said she will file a proposal during the special session that would create a statewide hands-free law — a measure that would accomplish the governor’s goal of uniform statewide legislation while strengthening restrictions on mobile phone usage behind the wheel across the state. She filed a similar measure, Senate Bill 67, during the regular session, but it never got a hearing.

“With the governor’s leadership and support, perhaps we can pass a better bill that sets a statewide standard,” Zaffirini said.

More than a dozen states already ban handheld cellphone use.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, proposed an amendment to the texting-while-driving measure that would have established the broad pre-emption that Abbott favors. The amendment failed, but Rinaldi said he is considering a similar proposal next month. 

“The pre-emption ensures that we have one uniform law and that everybody knows what it is,” Rinaldi said. He added that the more stringent regulations currently in place in some cities do not necessarily ensure greater public safety. 

Craddick said it is difficult to predict how a pre-emption proposal might fare in the special session, but he recalled that many legislators seemed “adamant” during the regular session about letting cities regulate the issue.

Abbott’s call for the mobile phone pre-emption is one on a slate of local control issues he has put on the agenda for next month’s special session. The governor has also taken aim at issues such as spending, trees on private land and construction project rules and permitting.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Abbott proposal would nullify city rules on distracted driving

Texas Gov. Abbott signs statewide ban on texting while driving

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from the bill’s author, Rep. Tom Craddick.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed into law a bill that creates a statewide ban on texting while driving.

The measure, authored by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, goes into effect Sept. 1. This is the fourth session in a row Craddick has tried to pass such a ban.

“By enacting this public safety legislation, the governor is saving lives by deterring this dangerous and deadly behavior,” Craddick said in a statement. “For a long time, Texas has needed this law to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes and we finally have it.”

Former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a similar proposal in 2011, calling it a “governmental effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” Abbott hesitated for several days before signing the bill, prompting speculation that he was undecided on the ban. 

The governor announced that he had signed the bill at a press conference Tuesday, when he also announced a series of priorities for a special legislative session to start July 18. Among those priorities is further work on the ban, which Abbott said “did not fully achieve my goals.”

“I was not satisfied with the law as it was written,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Now that Texas does have a statewide ban on texting and driving, I am calling for legislation that fully pre-empts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles. We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”

The law includes a provision to pre-empt local ordinances that govern a driver’s ability to “read, write, or send an electronic message.” But Abbott said Tuesday he hopes for broader legislation that fully pre-empts local governments from passing “any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles.” A broader pre-emption measure would impact dozens of cities — including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — that currently operate under stricter mobile regulations.

Andy Duehren contributed to this story.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Texas Gov. Abbott signs statewide ban on texting while driving