A bill passed by the Texas Senate on Thursday would take redistricting and school finance lawsuits out of the sole hands of judges in Travis County. The bill, S.B. 455, provides that the Texas Attorney General may petition for the formation of a three-judge panel to hear school finance and redistricting cases.
Proponents of the bill say these cases have statewide impact, so they should be heard by judges from other areas around the state… especially areas outside of “partisan” Travis County.
Supporters urge that having three judges decide redistricting and school finance cases is also consistent with the way federal courts handle such cases, and would instill greater public confidence in the outcome.
The bill passed by a vote of 21 to 10, largely on partisan lines. Senator Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) voted with the Senate Republicans.
“Texas schools have spent decades in court over school finance,” Senator Brandon Creighton (R–Conroe), author of the bill, told Breitbart Texas. “Prior to the passage of this legislation, one judge had the power to dictate the outcome on these constitutional issues. From here forward, Texans will get what they deserve in a judicial panel that represents our entire state.”
During Senate debates, Sen. Creighton mentioned the “40-year-saga” over school finance. He urged that one court should not have that much power over an issue that affects citizens across the entire state of Texas.
When the state’s school finance system was challenged by school districts last August, a Travis County district judge found in favor of the districts, ruling the system unconstitutional.
The judge in the school finance litigation, Judge John Dietz of Austin, Texas, was mentioned several times during the debate over S.B. 455. In response, Sen. Creighton said his bill “does not change that,” explaining how the Attorney General would be able to petition for the addition of two other judges in such cases, so the “rest of Texas can be part of the process.” Under Creighton’s reforms, the judge who was originally assigned the case would remain on the expanded three-judge panel.
Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) sarcastically referred to the Republican Senator’s bill as a “bright idea,” and asked, “What’s broken with this system?”
West told the Senator that he was “pretty sure” that the bill would be “part of some trial” and added it “looks suspicious … it is suspicious.”
He continued, “I think Ray Charles can see that. It is over-reaching.”
Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), a former judge, and the Chair of the State Affairs Committee, told Sen. West and the rest of her Senate colleagues that the bill would “bring state law into what happens if these cases go into federal litigation.”
This prompted West to quip, “Now we are using the federal government this time?”
Sen. Huffman also said she helped bring the bill out of committee, where the scope of the bill was “pared down to two issues,” namely redistricting and school finance.
“There would be more confidence with a panel of judges than one judge from a single district,” Huffman added.
A three-judge panel created pursuant to this bill would consist of the district judge who was assigned the case originally; a district judge chosen by the Chief Justice, who has been elected by the voters of a county other than where the case was filed; and an appellate judge chosen by the Chief Justice who is not from the jurisdiction in which the case was filed, or the same area in which the chosen district judge sits. The appellate judge cannot sit on a case that would be appealed to the jurisdiction where they serve as an appellate justice.
During the debate, Senator Kirk Watson (D-Dallas) asked Sen. Creighton the reason for bringing his legislation: “Is it your lack of confidence in the process?”
Travis County has been at the center of allegations that District Attorneys and judges made decisions along partisan political lines. These allegations extend back to then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle obtaining indictments against Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, after he sought appointment to the same Senate seat.
Earle also obtained indictments against former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, after DeLay’s leadership brought Republicans a majority of House seats for the first time since Reconstruction. The indictments of Hutchison and DeLay have been denounced by critics as political payback.
Most recently, the issue has been raised with the indictment by a Travis County Grand Jury of sitting Governor Rick Perry.
The Dallas Morning News reported in March of this year that then-Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri heralded the dilution of Travis County’s influence. He was in favor of three-judge panels. It was also reported that he said the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit “is reckless and partisan — and should be overhauled.” Munisteri reportedly said “Everybody around Austin knows that when you file [suits] in courts in Travis County with the Democratic judges, they gain their opportunity to try to get their political agenda enacted because they’ve lost all the legislative races.”
Breitbart Texas reported that the Texas Senate voted in April to move public integrity cases involving pubic officials outside of Travis County.
Texas State Rep. Mike Schofield (R-Katy) told Breitbart Texas “Every school finance case has been filed in Travis County, where only that county’s judges have had any role and only that county’s voters get to pick the judge. But the Texans in all 254 counties have to pay the bill. S.B. 455 will let voters in other counties have a say in picking the judges who decide how our school finance system is structured and how much a public education in Texas will cost.”
Schofield is a freshman Representative who served on former Gov. Rick Perry’s staff for over ten years. He introduced the House version of the bill.
The Senate Bill is now on its way to the Texas State House.
Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2