Gavel Grab

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.

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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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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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Legal Attacks Launched on TX Judge’s Ordering Marriage License

A Travis County, Texas judge’s ordering  of a marriage license for a same-sex couple has come under legal attack on multiple fronts.

The license was issued last week to a couple that included one member with ovarian cancer. According to the Washington Post, District Judge David Wahlberg ordered the exception, not long after Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman ruled unconstitutional a Texas ban on marriage for same-sex couples. 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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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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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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