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Changing Election of Texas Judges Gets Frosty Reception From Panel

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.”

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Alabama Chief Justice Moore to Headline Rally in Texas

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was to headline a rally organized by the Conservative Republicans of Texas Monday afternoon, taking a stand against marriage for same-sex couples. Moore made headlines last month when he ordered Alabama probate judges to ignore a federal court ruling that declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The Associated Press reports that the rally was one of several related events taking place in Texas’s capital on Monday. The Coalition of African American Pastors, another anti-marriage equality group, will hold a news conference, while Equality Texas will lobby lawmakers to support equal rights.

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Texas Bill Would Defy a Supreme Court Ruling for Marriage Equality

Texas State FlagHow many ways can legislators craft to punish judges for handling cases involving marriage for same-sex couples — or defy a Supreme Court ruling, if it occurs, that strikes down bans on these marriages?

In Texas, a recently filed bill would amend existing state law declaring that a marriage exists solely between one man and one woman by adding: “regardless of whether a federal court ruling or other federal law provides that a prohibition against the creation or recognition of a same-sex marriage or a civil union is not permitted under the United States Constitution.”

This legislation was reported by Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization. Read more

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Texas and Iowa Face New Marriage Equality Conflicts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is attempting to void the marriage of two women who wed on Thursday after the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses.

KWTX reports that the order did not invalidate the wedding but Paxton said he is looking for other ways to nullify the marriage license. The license was issued under a one-time court order for medical reasons because one of the women has cancer.

“The Texas Supreme Court has stayed two lower court rulings that declared the Texas marriage ban unconstitutional. It is appalling that our elected officials would expend so much legal fire power to stop loving couples from marrying, but this really seems like the last gasp of marriage opponents,” said Rebecca L. Robertson, the legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a proposal has been introduced to amend the Iowa constitution by defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. According to the Sioux City Journal, if adopted, it would nullify a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

The ballot initiative must be passed in two consecutive General Assemblies before it could appear on the 2017 ballot.

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In Texas, Another Court-Stripping Bill to Punish Judges

Texas State FlagA bill introduced in the Texas legislature closely mirrors one introduced in South Carolina earlier (see Gavel Grab) with an intent to punish state judges for handling cases involving marriage for same-sex couples.

The Texas bill provides, according to Gavel to Gavel, “A state or local governmental employee officially may not recognize, grant, or enforce a same-sex marriage license. If an employee violates this subsection, the employee may not continue to receive a salary, pension, or other employee benefit at the expense of the taxpayers of this State.”

After the South Carolina legislation was proposed, Justice at Stake Director of State Affairs Debra Erenberg criticized it as “a brazen political attack on the independence of the judicial branch.” Read more

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Dark Money Regulation Approved in Texas

texas-state-flag_1_0Dark money groups in Texas may need to start disclosing their anonymous donors, according to an article in San Antonio Express-News. The Texas Ethics Commission unanimously approved a measure for groups to reveal donors if 25 percent or more of its expenditures are politically motivated or if political contributions account for more than 25 percent of its total contributions in a calendar year.

Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring disclosure of donors but it was vetoed by the Governor. For more background see Gavel Grab.

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Supreme Court: Texas Abortion Clinics May Reopen

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonRestrictive provisions in a Texas law curtailing access to abortions were blocked by the Supreme Court for now, permitting the reopening of more than a dozen abortion clinics, the New York Times reported.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had earlier let the provisions stand while it proceeded to weigh an appeal (see Gavel Grab). 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.

The provisions have sparked a heated controversy, with state officials defending them as necessary to protect public health and abortion providers assailing them as unneeded, costly and intended to drive a number of them to shut down. Read more

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Reform of Judicial Selection is Studied in Texas

Close to 60 different races will appear on some ballots in Texas on Election Day, reports News 4 San Antonio. Up for election will be justices from both state Supreme Courts, State District and County Judges, and Justices of the Peace, adding up to about 40 judicial contests. And every single race will be decided bytexas court a partisan election.

While 38 states hold some form of judicial election, Texas is one of the few where every judicial office is up for partisan election. The explicit partisanship of judicial elections in Texas results in political coattails that “can be very long and very strong,” News 4 notes.

Critics, among them judges and state lawmakers, have advocated for change. These critics, according to the report, contend that by electing judges, it “turns them into money-grubbing politicians beholden to their donors—who are often the same lawyers who appear in their courtrooms.”

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Should Texas Judges Be Appointed?

Over 70 judicial candidates are running for election in Texas 0n November 4th, reports local Texas news station KSAT 12. However, according to Dr. Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, voters base their decisions on “name, ethnicity, gender or party,” not on qualification.

texas-star-with-ropeFormer Judge Victor Negron claims he lost election twice because he was a Republican in an unsympathetic county. He attributes the current system to a roll of the dice “to see if maybe the lever pullers will select your party for that year.”

Negron advocates a system whereby a nonpartisan panel screens judicial candidates for the governor to appoint, and then the judge would stand for retention after four years. In this way, well-qualified judges are kept in office, but they are still accountable to voters.

“Right now,” Negron says, “poorly informed voters voting along party lines can do bad things to good judges.”

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In Texas, a Frequently Tweeting Supreme Court Justice

don-willettJustice Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court has an unusual distinction, according to a New York Times commentary. He has dashed off more than 12,800 tweets since he joined Twitter in 2009. And that, he says, makes him “probably the most avid judicial tweeter in America — which is like being the tallest munchkin in Oz.”

He is down-home in many of the tweets, self-deprecating, and careful to avoid discussion of any legal issues that might surface in his courtroom. He finds tweeting a valuable way to reach out to constituents in a state where voters elect their judges.

“He calls it ‘political malpractice’ not to make use of social media,” the commentary said. “Justice Willett also noted that the American Bar Association’s ethical guidelines approve of the ‘judicious’ use of social media in judicial elections as ‘a valuable tool for public outreach.’ (The wisdom of having an elected judiciary is, of course, another matter.)” Read more

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