A recent article by the Texas Tribune reports that a large number of mostly middle class Texans fall into a “justice gap” where they aren’t poor enough to receive free legal aid provided to indigents but can’t afford basic legal services on their own.
The article reports that the state’s highest civil court launched a new commission to identify and assist Texans who have fallen into the “justice gap.” “The 18-member Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services, led by former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, will spend the next year gathering data and coming up with recommendations to be presented in November 2016.”
In interview with the Tribune, Jefferson said, “one of the most famous phrases in American law is liberty and justice for all — it is part of our culture, it is part of our custom, it is part of the fabric of our democracy…one of the biggest challenges today is to make that phrase a promise and to make that promise a reality.”
“Today, even most lawyers cannot afford to retain another lawyer to represent them in civil legal disputes,” Jefferson said. “This is a crisis for the legal profession and for our state.”
BULLETIN: The Supreme Court on Friday has decided to take up an abortion restrictions case from Texas, thereby “agreeing to determine how far states may go in regulating the procedure without violating a woman’s constitutional rights,” The Washington Post reported.
Will the Supreme Court take up an issue in the center of the ongoing debate over abortion rights, and do it in the middle of an election cycle? A USA Today article says the high court could decide as early as Friday whether to do so.
It has been asked to take up an appeal by some Texas abortion clinics. Restrictive provisions in a Texas law curtailing access to abortions were largely upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court subsequently put a hold on the appeals court’s decision. The provisions involve requirements for abortion clinics to comply with standards for “ambulatory surgical centers” and for physicians performing abortions to have the privilege to admit patients at a hospital nearby. Read more
Travis County, Texas Judge Julie Kocurek was shot at and left for dead in the driveway of her home on Friday night. CNN reported that colleagues cannot help but wonder if she was targeted for her work.
“The idea that you would be ambushed or attacked in your home for the work that you do was just mind-boggling to me,” Travis County Administrative Judge Lora Livingston said.
The Austin American-Statesman reported the judge’s injuries came from shrapnel and glass, after the car in which she was an occupant stopped because an obstacle, a trash can or garbage bag, had been placed in the driveway and was blocking it. She was being treated at a hospital. The newspaper said the attack was “what Austin police investigators believe was an assassination attempt in connection to her work.”
To bring sunlight to political “dark money,” the Texas Ethics Commission has passed a rule to adapt to the greater role now played by politically active nonprofit groups and anonymous contributors.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the rule provides that “communications from a group like a 501(c)4 nonprofit will qualify as a political expenditure if it is distributed within 30 days of an election and is ‘susceptible to no other reasonable interpretation than to urge the passage or defeat’ of a candidate or a ballot measure.”
Some critics said the rule is too broad and exceeds what courts have generally permitted. But at mySanAntonio.com, O. Ricardo Pimentel wrote, “Bravo to the Texas Ethics Commission for acting. Legal challenges may very well come. Texans should recognize them for what they are — advocacy that folks still be able to lurk in those political shadows.”
With another federal judge announcing his retirement and the state’s two Republican senators playing politics with a Democratic president, Texas “has become the epicenter of a growing judicial vacancy crisis,” a Fort Worth Star-Telegram op-ed says.
Natalie Knight of the Alliance for Justice wrote the op-ed, which is headlined, “Texas judicial vacancy flood means [Sens.] Cornyn, Cruz must act.” There are nine vacant federal judgeships in the state, and three of them have been unoccupied for more than three years. Seven have been formally deemed “judicial emergencies.”
“[John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz have a choice: Let the Texas vacancy crisis grow even worse, or start looking for the judges Texans desperately need,” Knight contends.
The Texas Tweeter Laureate is … a judge. Yes, you read that correctly. And in an intriguing Washington Times op-ed, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett shows flashes of the humor and succinctness that are part of his social media effort to demystify our courts:
- “People know far more about American Idol judges than judges.”
- “I’m probably the most avid social-media judge in America—which is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz. It’s a bar so low it’s subterranean. But apparently I’m part of the Twitterati (think Illuminati, but with gavels).”
- “People are genuinely amazed that a nerdy judge can be engaging, and believe me, my geekery is on an uber-elite level. But it’s rare for a Supreme Court Justice to step out from behind the bench and demystify things.”
- “If you’re a Texas Supreme Court Justice hopscotching across 254 counties, trying to tattoo your name onto the noggins of millions of voters, you must find creative ways to raise visibility and build awareness. Twitter, Facebook, etc. are low-cost but high-yield ways to leverage the support of key influencers and opinion leaders. Bottom line: It’s political malpractice not to engage people smartly via social media.”
Legislation to require politically active nonprofit groups to disclose their donors was declared dead in the Texas legislature, The Texas Tribune reported.
“The Legislature gets a ‘F’ on ethics reform this session. The bills they passed largely protect the politicians and limit disclosure of information,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a Justice at Stake partner organization.
The Texas Tribune subsequently reported in a different article about Gov. Greg Abbott’s news conference following the conclusion of the legislative session, “Abbott Opposes Curbs on Dark Money.” Read more
Alfred Bennett, presiding judge for the 61st Civil District Court of Texas, was confirmed 95-0 by the U.S. Senate on Monday for a federal district court judgeship. It was the first judicial confirmation vote taken by the Senate this year.
A San Antonio Express-News report said Texas has 11 judicial vacancies, more than any other state, and confirmation votes on two other judicial nominees for the federal judiciary in Texas remain in limbo.
“Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, need to oil the judicial confirmation machinery they’ve allowed to rust over since they’ve taken control, and get the gears of justice moving efficiently again,” said Judith Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. Read more
Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who has advocated for merit selection as a means to preserve fair and impartial courts (see Gavel Grab), is touted in a Houston Chronicle column as a potential pick for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rick Casey describes Jefferson as an individual of stature who made it his practice to follow the rule of law, who was initially appointed by a Republican governor, and who could pass muster with a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate if President Obama is faced with filling a high court vacancy.
“Republicans could easily do worse than Jefferson, who often ruled for insurance companies and big businesses over plaintiffs,” Casey writes. “But he has also shown considerable concern for the little guy.”
For years, reformers have talked about removing Texas judges from a straight-ticket party voting process (see Gavel Grab). This week, a bill to do exactly that got a frosty reception in a Texas House Committee, according to the Texas Tribune.
From both parties, critics said that tampering with the ballot could confuse voters and dampen turnout. “I think we should be encouraging people to vote, not discouraging people to vote,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican.
Among reformers who have voiced support for the bill is former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, mentioning the problems he sees with partisan judicial elections: “One of the big problems is that it really confuses the public into thinking there is a material difference in a judge who is a Republican and a judge who is a Democrat,” Jefferson said. “The second, it removes judges from office, not based on how diligent they are, they’re removed just because they’re in the wrong political party.”