Gavel Grab

Texas Ethics Commission Adopts Dark Money Disclosure Rule

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, 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.”

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Judicial Vacancy Epidemic Continues to Sweep Across the States

Texas & CaliforniaCalifornia and Texas are only two of many states impacted by a judicial vacancy epidemic that has struck the nation in recent years.

The Associated Press addresses the issue with an article titled, “Wheels of Justice Slow at Overloaded Federal Courts.” The AP cites the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the rising delay in resolving civil and criminal cases because of judges’ ever-increasing workload.

The article says that the challenges are “particularly acute” in some federal courts where the judges deal with double the workload of the national average, like in the Eastern Districts of California and Texas.

Not only has the Eastern District of California had a judicial vacancy for almost three years, the article says, but the court has not had an increase in judges since 1978, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The AP reports that California’s Eastern District in Fresno is currently sustained by only one full-time district court judge, Lawrence O’Neill. The situation in the Eastern District of Texas is similar, the AP says.

According to the article, Judge O’Neill says, “We can slow things down because we simply can’t work any harder or faster… But the real important effect of that is people who need our help to move their lives forward are delayed.” 

Matt Menendez, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice finds the judicial vacancies that the federal courts are facing today to be “quite bad.” The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Legal scholars say, “Congress needs to fill judicial vacancies more quickly but also increase the number of judges in some districts — both issues that get bogged down in partisan political fights over judicial nominees,” according to the AP.

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Six Years Later, Justice Jefferson Still Quoted on Merit Selection

texas courtA Texas political reporter, in reminding his readers that state Supreme Court justices are elected officials, found it useful to quote then-Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson about his advocacy for a merit-based selection system to replace the elections.

“We should adopt a system for judges that has two primary components. Judges should achieve office by merit rather than whim, and voters should hold judges accountable, based on their records, through subsequent retention elections,” Jefferson said in 2009, according to the Houston Chronicle commentary by Bobby Cervantes. “When a judge’s victory is based on party over principle, money over merit, cynicism over the rule of law, voters lose.” Read more

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Politics Fuels ‘Growing Judicial Vacancy Crisis’ in Texas: Opinion

empty-bench1With 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.

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On Politics and On Courts, Texas Judge Finds Twitter Useful

Willett3The 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.”
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Former TX Chief Justice, at ‘Summit,’ Urges Judicial Selection Reform

Former Chief Justice  Jefferson of Texas

Former Chief Justice Jefferson of Texas

Public confidence in our courts is eroded when judicial candidates raise campaign cash from litigants and lawyers, former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson told Justice at Stake’s 2015 Fair Courts State Summit in a keynote address on Thursday.

Jefferson, the Texas court’s first African-American judge and first African-American chief justice, is an ardent champion of merit selection. Recounting his firsthand experience in Texas, he told the Summit attendees why he believes reform is necessary and also why it is hard to achieve.

After describing a Texas system whereby many judges win office on a straight-ticket partisan vote, he said the top qualifications to win election are party affiliation, the “sound of your name” and “how much money you can raise. And what is so disheartening about that is it has nothing to do with qualification and merit.”

“Another very fundamental problem,” he continued, “is that the public … thinks that if you’re accepting money from a litigant or lawyer, you are  going to back that litigant or lawyer in your judicial ruling. And so the confidence in a fair and impartial system of justice goes away just by the very practice that you have in Texas and many many other states, even increasingly in states where judges are elected in retention elections.” Read more

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Campaign Finance Disclosure Legislation Dies in Texas Legislature

iStock_000015670171Small1-1Legislation 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

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Judicial Fundraising ‘Can Carry A Strong Scent’ In Practice

Fmr. Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson

Fmr. Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson

An article in the Texas Tribune on Friday analyzed the prudence of electing judges in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, which upheld a state’s right to restrict the fundraising activities of judicial candidates.

This fundraising “smells just fine in the civics textbooks,” the article editorializes, “but in practice, it can carry a strong scent, especially in judicial races.” Former Chief Justices Wallace Jefferson and Tom Phillips agree, as they wrote in an amicus brief for Williams-Yulee. “As former Chief Justices who have observed countless elections in our own States, and run as candidates for judicial office, we are well-acquainted with the genuine dangers — and sometimes actual abuse — present when judicial candidates personally solicit campaign contributions from parties and lawyers,” they wrote. Two former Alabama chiefs, including Sue Bell Cobb, a crusader against judicial elections, joined the brief.

Read more

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Judge Reprimanded in Part Over ‘Psychopaths’ Remarks

The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded a trial judge, Michael Thomas Seiler, in part because the judge decried the “psychopaths” who appear before him in court. Judge Seiler was talking to a Texas Patriot PAC audience, and he also held up a photo of Hannibal Lecter, a fictional serial killer in the “Silence of the Lambs” movie.

According to an ABA Journal article, the  commission said the judge’s remarks “could cause reasonable observers to perceive he would not be fair and impartial while presiding in … civil commitment proceedings.” It also said he was “impatient, discourteous and undignified” in statements to attorneys representing sex offenders. Read more

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By Naming ‘Bypass’ Judges, Would TX Legislation Endanger Them?

texas courtTwo bills under debate in the Texas legislature would make public the names of judges who grant minors permissions to have abortions, a step that critics say represents bullying judges and potentially threatening their safety.

“Texas is the first state in recent memory to consider naming the judges who rule on [these so-called judicial] bypass cases,” Mother Jones reported, although similar legislation was considered there several years ago. At that time, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch cautioned that naming judges could endanger them and their families at the hands of angry parents or anti-abortion extremists.

This year, Susan Hays, an attorney with the nonprofit group Jane’s Due Process, said the bills are intended to punish judges and discourage them from participating in judicial bypass proceedings. Read more

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