Austin American-Statesman. May 28, 2023.
Editorial: Paxton faces a long-overdue day of reckoning
During eight-and-a-half years in office, scandal-ridden Attorney General Ken Paxton evaded legal and political accountability for a laundry list of alleged misconduct including bribery, election interference, improper use of office and more. Indicted on state securities fraud charges in 2015, the state’s top cop is also the subject of an ongoing federal investigation into allegations that he misused his office to benefit a donor.
Many of these and other alleged misdeeds have been widely known for years and extensively reported. But until last week, Paxton’s fellow lawmakers rarely spoke up. Paxton’s long-overdue moment of reckoning arrived Saturday, however, as the Texas House of Representatives laid out 20 articles of impeachment against him, painting a damning portrait of a public official whose behavior has long demonstrated a willful disregard for government ethics, the law and the public trust. The House voted overwhelmingly to send impeachment charges to the Senate, where a trial will provide Paxton with the opportunity to defend himself. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to uphold the House’s 121-23 vote to remove him from office, Paxton would become only the third public official to be impeached in the state’s 178-year history.
As allegations against the attorney general piled up over the years, his fellow lawmakers typically stayed silent. Paxton filled the void with a defiant hubris, insisting without proof that he was the victim of a political witch hunt. He was true to form on Friday when he called a news conference to lash out at his accusers before Saturday’s impeachment vote.
Among the many scandals that dogged Paxton were allegations that surfaced in 2020 that he fired staff members who said he abused his power to help a campaign donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, avoid legal consequences from an FBI investigation into his business dealings. Paxton’s office later asked state lawmakers to pay a $3.3 million settlement with taxpayer money. Lawmakers, including Paxton’s Republican colleagues, found that brazen request too much to take.
“We cannot overemphasize the fact that, but for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the House committee in charge of the impeachment investigation said in a statement Friday.
Paxton’s scandal-plagued tenure has been a stain on the attorney general’s office and the state for far too long. A principled politician might have resigned under the weight of so many allegations years ago. But aided by Republican voters and GOP lawmakers who gave him a pass, Paxton had until now escaped political consequence. The scandals that followed him didn’t seem to bother voters either. They reelected Paxton twice, including last year after he tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election in four states.
Paxton deserves his day at trial. But we must ask: What took so long to get to this point? Given the evidence presented Saturday, why didn’t Republican state lawmakers seek to remove Paxton from office earlier? And why were they silent again during Paxton’s two bids for reelection? In the 2022 Republican primary, Paxton faced a rarity for an incumbent, primary challenges from two prominent members of his party—Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. Most Republican lawmakers refused to take a side, or endorsed Paxton when they could have followed the lead of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who said before the election that the legal and ethical cloud hanging over Paxton embarrassed him. Or the example of U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a former federal prosecutor, who called on Paxton to resign in 2020.
The Editorial Board called for Paxton’s resignation in 2015 when he was indicted for securities fraud after persuading investors to buy technology stock without disclosing he was being paid a commission for the sales. Paxton has insisted he is innocent and blamed politically motivated prosecutors.
With last week’s impeachment vote coming, Paxton complained that the legislature was trying to overturn the results of his “free and fair election.” The irony of that statement seemed lost on the attorney general, who was sued by the State Bar of Texas for trying to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election in four states.
It is unclear if Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, will recuse herself from the impeachment debate and vote in the Senate. She should abstain to preserve the integrity of the process.
The Editorial Board strongly supports a full and transparent accounting of the impeachment charges against Paxton, including bribery, obstruction of justice, dereliction of duty, making false statements in official records and many more. These are grave charges and if Paxton is found to have committed wrongdoing and violated the public trust the state’s top law enforcement officer is expected to uphold, he should be removed from office. But first, the Senate must act with integrity. Paxton has a lot to answer for, but he deserves due process.
Dallas Morning News. May 27, 2023
Editorial: Texas still needs a statewide auto safety inspection program
What’s conservative about ending auto safety inspections but still charging the fees?
Conservatives often rail against certain requirements as excessive government overreach, especially if it involves a mandatory fee or tax. Often, this editorial board would concur if a compelling reason can’t be made. But frankly, we can’t find a compelling reason to do away with mandatory auto inspections in Texas at a time when our roads are getting more and more crowded.
Nonetheless, the Texas Legislature has placed a bill on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk to do away with Texas’ required annual vehicle safety inspections, but not the accompanying inspection fees. Instead, the safety inspection fee that the state currently collects from drivers would roll over into a new charge you’ll pay to register your car so that the state does not lose millions of dollars from fees needed to fund transportation projects.
So much for transparency in governing. If the benefit or obligation were to go away, so should the fee, right?
Let’s be clear, we think that ending the inspection program is a bad idea and urge the governor to veto this bill. Authored by state Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, House Bill 3297 is the latest effort from conservatives in the Legislature to end the safety inspection program.
The common complaint is that the inspection program doesn’t improve road safety, rewards fraud in the inspection system and burdens rural Texans who may live miles away from the nearest inspection station. As during previous legislative sessions when similar measures to kill safety inspections fell short, the debate again pits mechanics and state inspection operations against free-market conservatives and libertarians.
The issue should be less about free-choice, personal responsibility and modest inconvenience and more about collective responsibility to make shared roads safer, or at least not more dangerous.
National studies on the effectiveness of safety inspection post mixed conclusions. The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research, which studied the safety issue for the Texas Department of Public Safety in 2018, found that mandatory inspections continue to detect safety problems and suggested that lawmakers consider expanding the list of items that would be checked during an inspection.
Fatalities and injuries were significantly higher for crashes involving vehicles with safety defects than those without safety defects, the researchers noted.
Those findings haven’t deterred lawmakers from trying to sunset auto safety inspections. We all know that there are too many poorly maintained vehicles on the road, that inspection fraud is a problem and that most of us would rather do something else than wait to have our vehicles inspected. But the response to fraud should be to prosecute the fraud, not nix safety inspections. That is as illogical and irresponsible as repealing speed limits because there are speeders.
Texas vehicle safety inspections are as much for the benefit of drivers in the other lanes as they are for our own safety. Texas is growing, and drivers are keeping cars longer. Texas should keep its auto safety inspection program and crack down on fraudsters who would undermine it.
The state should be part of the solution, not a contributor to the problem.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 27, 2023
Editorial: Texas blows two good chances to move forward on marijuana. Blame Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Texas has been doing marijuana reform the right way, moving slowly and evaluating the consequences while other states have flown ahead to full legalization.
But there’s moving slowly and there’s not moving at all. This year, the Legislature — the Senate, specifically — unfortunately chose to stand still.
Two sensible measures made it out of the House with strong majorities. One would add chronic pain to the list of medical conditions for which one could get legal, mild cannabis products. The other would take an important incremental step on recreational weed use, lessening the penalties and making possession of a small, personal amount akin to a traffic ticket.
The House, which has voted in three straight legislative sessions to reduce criminal penalties, reflects bipartisan public sentiment. The Senate reflects the iron hand of one state official: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
These bills, like others before them, never got as much as a single committee hearing in Patrick’s Senate. It’s uncertain whether a majority of senators oppose them. There’s just not much room to buck the three-term lieutenant governor, especially among his fellow Republicans.
Their constituents’ views are clear. In poll after poll, Texans say they want decriminalization — nearly three-quarters of respondents in a December survey by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics project.
The methodical push on medical cannabis has been led by Fort Worth Rep. Stephanie Klick. She’s a reliably conservative Republican who trained as a nurse and lets research guide her legislation.
Over eight years, she and other lawmakers have created a “compassionate use” program. They’ve been careful: The program started with only one condition eligible, a form of epilepsy. Products must be low in THC, the compound that produces marijuana’s high. And participants don’t get pot to smoke; it must be dispensed in the form of, say, an edible or applicable oil.
Many Texans who need relief from chronic pain turn to opioids, and we’ve seen the dangers of addiction and abuse of pills. Apparently Patrick thinks those consequences are preferable to letting doctors prescribe cannabis gummies.
The decriminalization bill was another sensible step. States that have rushed into full legalization are starting to see consequences, including widespread public use. A better approach is something like the measure the House approved. It would drop penalties for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine. It would prevent needless arrests that clog our jails and establish a protocol for expunging minor pot convictions from one’s criminal record.
The Legislature also failed on an important regulatory need. Confusion on the difference between hemp and weed and a lack of testing and enforcement have resulted in the ready availability of intoxicating products at corner gas stations. Teenagers, of course, have figured this out, and the state needs a robust consumer protection action.
It’s odd: The Senate won’t agree to decriminalization, but it won’t do anything to better enforce current laws.
Fort Worth and other Tarrant County cities can choose not to wait on the Legislature. They should instruct police not to jail anyone over possession of less than 2 ounces of pot. Offenders would get a court summons, and if they didn’t show up to face consequences, they could be arrested. But it’s past time to stop using precious jail resources on minor drug offenses.
After all, we’ve got at least another two years to wait for the Legislature — for the lieutenant governor, actually — to plot a more sensible pot policy for Texas.
Houston Chronicle. May 22, 2023.
Editorial: Angry about dangerous people out on bond? Amend the Texas Constitution.
“Liberty is precious to Americans, and any deprivation must be scrutinized.”
When Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht uttered those words during a 2017 joint meeting of the state House and Senate, he was illustrating a two-pronged problem with the state’s bail system: we jail too many people simply because they can’t afford their freedom, and we don’t keep enough people in jail who threaten our safety.
As an example of the latter, Hecht cited the tragic murder of Damon Allen, a Texas highway state trooper. Allen was killed when the driver of a car he pulled over for speeding on I-45 fired at him with a rifle. The man who shot him that day (he was later convicted of capital murder for the offense) had been freed on a felony money bond for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy.
Tragedies like this, combined with a national surge in crime since the COVID-19 pandemic, and a flurry of local headlines highlighting a spate of violent, repeat offenders back out on the streets after making bail, have furnished a narrative among tough-on-crime commentators and politicians that judges in Texas currently wield too much discretion over bond decisions. In fact, the opposite is true. Judges in Texas are constrained by the state Constitution, which guarantees that very few people can be denied bail initially unless they are charged with capital murder. Defendants with substantial resources, such as the infamous example of multi-millionaire Robert Durst, can secure their release even when high bond amounts are set.
The Legislature has plans to change that. A bipartisan measure, known as Senate Joint Resolution 44, sponsored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, would amend the state Constitution to allow judges to deny bail for those accused of murder as well as other “major offenses,” including kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault and assault with a deadly weapon. It would also apply to defendants charged with repeated human trafficking offenses.
If the amendment, which has already cleared the state Senate 30-1, wins the support of two-thirds of the House, it would be placed on the statewide November ballot for voters to decide if the constitutional change is warranted.
If voters approve the amendment, the pre-trial system would look something like this: within 72 hours of a qualifying criminal case being filed, prosecutors seeking to deny bail would be forced during a hearing to show actual, physical evidence — not an offense report, not a probable cause statement, not a proffer to present exhibits at trial for immediate acceptance or rejection — that a defendant is a public safety threat. A magistrate or judge would then decide whether to grant or deny bail. That judge would have to appoint a lawyer for a defendant who doesn’t have one at the hearing. The judge would also have to issue a written opinion explaining the reasoning for denying bail. And a judge who decides to grant bail must apply the “least restrictive” conditions possible to ensure that the defendant would make their next court appearance.
Previous versions of this proposed amendment failed to clear the House two years ago, when the Legislature last met, and it’s yet unclear whether the proposal’s language has been altered enough to win the requisite support of House Democrats. Opponents of the measure argue only a small subset of defendants accused of violent crimes go on to commit new offenses and that the overhaul would invite abuses and unjust confinement based on prejudice. Currently, they argue, judges can set strict bond conditions and employ tools such as ankle monitors to protect the public and ensure defendants don’t miss court dates.
This board has called for such a change to the Constitution that would allow more truly dangerous people to be held without bond. We believe Huffman’s proposal is both tough and smart on crime. On its own, it would protect public safety while also maintaining critical guardrails for defendants’ due process rights. We urge the House to pass it before the end of the legislative session and allow voters to have the final say this fall.
Even with this change, however, the Legislature’s work on criminal justice and public safety is not complete. The state needs more criminal courts to move cases forward, more funding for pretrial services and more restrictions on bail bondsmen who undercut judges’ bond decisions by allowing defendants to pay a minimal percentage of the amount required for release.
One constitutional amendment won’t instantly make us safer. In a perfect world, lawmakers would mirror states such as Illinois and eliminate cash bail altogether, moving Texas closer to a criminal justice system where people aren’t detained simply because they can’t afford not to be. Anyone who cares about respecting basic rights and keeping our communities safe should be support reforms that prevent those unjust detentions and keep those who truly pose imminent threats behind bars.
San Antonio Express-News. May 23, 2023.
Editorial: A timeless commitment to ending gun violence
One year ago, Uvalde, famous for its honey and nearby Garner State Park, became synonymous with horror.
One year ago, the sun rising over the town and Robb Elementary School beamed with the brightness of summer’s eve. For children, the end of the school year offered the coming thrills of new adventures, long days and the hopes of endless promise. But long before sunset, a darkness fell upon Uvalde, blanketing it in terror, tears and heartbreak. The town is now best known for the second-deadliest school shooting in American history and an inept police response that made the atrocity worse.
May 24, 2022 is the before-and-after date for Uvalde’s timeline, 21 grieving families and the many injured survivors who carry with them physical and emotional scars. The date is a boundary in the record of time.
One year ago, time froze for the families of the 19 children and two teachers who were murdered in the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.
Time stopped for those families, but the rest of the world moves on. The same sun that rose above Uvalde last year will do so on this anniversary, and into the future as children grow into adulthood and have children of their own. But for the Uvalde families, as they have come to be collectively known, it will always be May 24, 2022. Each anniversary a signpost to the anniversary ahead in a never-ending pilgrimage of grief.
The world moves on from horror and atrocity, as will the media that descended upon Uvalde last year, and has returned for one-year anniversary coverage. That attention will wane with time, just as there will be other mass shootings to cover. New horrors that will unfold before our eyes and defy language.
The world moves on, even for the strangers who have mourned for the Uvalde families, kept the 19 children and two teachers whose lives were stolen in their prayers and made their own pilgrimages to the memorials at the school and Town Square. Their commitment will endure, but time creates distance between tragedies and those of us who do not experience them directly.
On this first anniversary, let’s pledge to not distance ourselves so far from the Uvalde mass shooting that we lose sight of policy inaction. A teenager armed with a weapon of war stormed into an elementary school and slaughtered 21 people — 19 children — and Texas lawmakers responded by passing zero gun safety reforms. Has anything fundamentally changed to prevent this from happening again? The very question reveals the answer.
When the Austin American-Statesman published video of the Robb Elementary shooting in July, it came with a disclaimer, “The sound of children screaming has been removed.”
But the families will always hear those unheard screams of their children, which will haunt them just as it should haunt those law enforcement officers who failed to intervene over the course of 77 minutes.
Not removed from that audio is the sound of the weapon that is the reason the children screamed. One year later, that weapon remains easy to purchase in Texas.
Does the failure to achieve humane and commonsense gun safety reform in response to such a profound tragedy release us from our obligation to advocate for change and prevent gun violence?
Does it entitle us to give up despite the emotional fatigue? Absolutely not.
In a 1946 speech at a Dominican monastery, Nobel laureate Albert Camus said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?”
We can’t prevent this from being a world in which children are shot to death. But we can reduce the number of children shot to death by weapons of war. We can reduce the number of children screaming in a classroom because of such weapons. It is in our power to do this, and if we do not try, who else in the world will?
If we don’t try, more communities will commemorate the kind of anniversary Uvalde marks. Don’t let the passage of time create so much distance from Uvalde that we can’t see this simple and humane truth.