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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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Three Nominees for U.S. Bench in Texas Win Senators' Praise

United_States_Capitol_dome_daylightThree of President Obama’s nominees for the federal district courts in Texas were praised at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by the state’s two Republican senators, the Dallas Morning News reported.

The three include U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman of San Antonio, who would become the state’s first openly gay federal judge if confirmed. The three individuals were selected by the White House in a deal earlier this year with the Texas senators.

Judicial vacancies in Texas have been described as at a “crisis point” (see Gavel Grab.) The nominees still must win approval by the committee and, if that occurs, from the full Senate. Read more

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Three Nominated for Federal Trial Bench in Texas

For the federal trial court in Texas, where judicial vacancies have been described at a “crisis point,” President Obama has nominated three individuals.  The Dallas Morning News said the White House had reached an apparent deal with the state’s Republican U.S. senators.

The  nominees are U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman of San Antonio, Texarkana lawyer Robert Schroeder III, and Sherman Magistrate Judge Amos Mazzant III. Pitman, if confirmed, would become the first openly gay federal judge in Texas.

“Any nominations are critically important, as Texas desperately needs to have as many of its nine district and two circuit vacancies filled,” Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, told the newspaper. “The judges are overwhelmed by crushing case loads and too few judicial resources.” Read more

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A New Push for 'Dark Money' Disclosure in Texas

All members of the House State Affairs Committee in Texas have signed a letter urging the Texas Ethics Commission to use its rule-making authority to adopt a “dark money” disclosure rule.

dark_money_email_image“We believe the public has a right to know who is spending money to influence elections — and that the integrity of our electorate depends on disclosure so that the electorate can be fully informed,” the letter said.

“We DO NOT support requiring disclosure of all donors to non-profit organizations. However, we believe that the commission can, under current law, require disclosure of donors and their contributions, if those contributions are used to make direct campaign expenditures as defined by the Election Code.” Read more

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Opinion: U.S. Judicial Vacancies in Texas at 'Crisis Point'

Judicial-VacanciesWith eight U.S. district court judgeships vacant in Texas and two more vacancies coming, the ability of sitting federal judges to fulfill their constitutional responsibility is threatened and at “a crisis point,” retired U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson writes in an Austin American-Statesman op-ed.

There are a total of 52 trial court judgeships in the state. Sitting judges are working at a 120 percent capacity to handle their own heavy loads and those of others. With a potential vacancy rate of one out of every five judgeships, the courts are crippled, Judge Furgeson suggests:

“Imagine if the Dallas Mavericks or the San Antonio Spurs or the Houston Rockets played their games with only four players on the court. Things wouldn’t go well. Neither will things go well in our federal courts if these vacancies persist.” Read more

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Article Looks at Texas, Bad Judging, and Possible Reform

Texas State FlagFamily court Judge Denise Pratt of Texas, the subject of numerous complaints and an investigation by local prosecutors, resigned March 28 and suspended her campaign for re-election. Now some Texans are asking whether bad judges are merely a fact of life in a state with partisan judicial elections.

The state’s partisan election system “results in qualified and unqualified candidates getting swept in and out with political cycles,” a Houston Chronicle article said by way of paraphrasing the views of former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, a Republican. (In noting that Texas is one of eight states with partisan judicial elections, and that 14 hold partisan contested elections, the article quoted Justice at Stake.)

An interim legislative committee study of judicial selection in Texas is under way (see Gavel Grab). “We don’t know if it’s going to be taken seriously or not,” Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, told the Chronicle. “I think the concern of reformers over Texas judicial selection process is that we don’t always get the best qualified judges.” Read more

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