One-Third of Criminal Appeals Court Ready to Leave

All three Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges whose terms expire in 2014 — one-third of the nine-member panel — have elected not to seek another term, setting the stage for unusually high turnover on the state's highest criminal court.

"This is a lot leaving," said Chuck Mallin, appellate chief in the Tarrant County district attorney's office. "It's always a scary proposition, because you don't know what you're going to get."

Judges Cathy Cochran, Tom Price and Paul Womack each confirmed that they will not run for re-election in 2014. At least eight individuals have filed forms indicating they have appointed treasurers for campaigns to fill those seats, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. Candidates don't officially file to run for state offices until later this year.

The retiring judges together have more than 40 years experience serving on the appeals court.

"I’m just getting too old," said Cochran, who was a teacher before embarking on her legal career and joined the appeals court in 2001. "It's time to put me out to pasture."

Womack said his decision to leave the court, where he has served since 1997, was "nothing very dramatic."

"Three terms is enough, and I’ve reached retirement age," he said.

Price, who has also served on the court since 1997, did not comment about the reason for his decision not to run for a fourth term.

University of Texas School of Law professor Jennifer Laurin said the large turnover at the court could have a dramatic impact on the decisions that the panel issues on critical criminal justice issues.

For example, Cochran, Price and Womack all joined in the majority opinion released this month in the Steven Staley case, agreeing with Judge Elsa Alcala that the mentally ill death row inmate should not be forcibly medicated and that without the medication he was incompetent for execution.

The three judges, she said, have often been in the majority on the recent opinions with a consistent trend toward opening up cases that would otherwise have been closed in light of new scientific developments.

"A number of those decisions could have gone the other way" without those three judges on the panel, Laurin said.

Just how different the court — and its decisions — will be after the elections will depend on who the winners are and the judicial philosophies they bring to the bench, she said.

Mallin, who has practiced before the court since the 1970s, said that he has viewed the its decisions over the last decade as "middle of the road." And that's where he'd like the court to remain.

"You never know what they're going to do when they get on the bench," Mallin said. "There can be a major change, and I've seen the swing."

"The voters don't really pay much attention to judicial races like they should," he said. "They're probably some of the most important offices that citizens are allowed to vote for."

Remade Higher Ed Board Reaching Out to Universities

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes at the Texas Capitol as Governor Rick Perry signs several education-related bills in ceremonies on June 10, 2013.
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes at the Texas Capitol as Governor Rick Perry signs several education-related bills in ceremonies on June 10, 2013.

At all levels, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board officials are reaching out to their counterparts at public university systems in an effort to salvage those relationships after the airing of dirty laundry during the regular session.

The coordinating board knew it would be critiqued as the organization underwent the legislative sunset process, which calls for the evaluation and reform of state agencies, during the regular session. But the extent of the changes, culminating in the removal of a significant chunk of the coordinating board’s authority, went further than some expected.

Much of lawmakers’ public comments about the higher education board during the regular session were informed by the experiences of the state’s public universities — and they were not positive. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, noted that the board’s approach to decision-making was “isolated.” State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, bemoaned that it was “now regulating more than it is coordinating.” State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said he had repeatedly heard one concern: “We do not trust the coordinating board.”

Senate Bill 215 went into effect at the beginning of September and the board is significantly changed as a result. “The Legislature has redefined the coordinating board’s role from an agency that authorizes and regulates to one that advises and recommends — a more strategic partnership with our boards of regents that we embrace,” Fred Heldenfels, the former chairman of the board, said in a statement.

And they've set out to get to know these partners a little better.

“We’ve been sitting down and having pretty frank conversations about how we move forward,” said Dominic Chavez, senior director of external relations at the coordinating board. “We’re obviously all pointed in the same direction in terms of what we’re trying to achieve for our state. It’s just on policy issues, how do we work more collaboratively and get away from the conflicts of the past?”

University representatives who have had initial meetings with the board to begin the healing process have indicated that the interactions have been positive. That is promising, since they will be working much more closely as many major decisions that previously rested with the coordinating board are now left to boards of regents and others require more university input.

The agency no longer has the authority to approve capital projects on university campuses. It will no longer be called upon to approve the mission statements of higher education institutions. If a university has a degree program that is only producing a very small number of graduates, the coordinating board cannot shut it down. The list does not stop there.

Using the particularly contentious issue of shuttering of low-performing degree programs as an example, Chavez noted that legislators' move to hand decision-making to regents does not necessarily mean the coordinating board was on the wrong track. The board is still required to notify institutions when their programs are not performing up to state standards; it just can’t decide what to do with that information.

“They accepted the rationale,” Chavez said of lawmakers. “They accepted the practice. They accepted that this is an important thing for Texas to do. But they decided it should be more localized."

In order to make rule or policy changes regarding admission policies, allocation or distribution of funds, institutional data requests, or other key areas, the coordinating board now must engage institutions in “negotiated rule-making,” a more collaborative process that begins long before a proposed rule is approved or rejected.

Chavez said the board is also making internal changes to foster a “more rich communication environment,” including meeting with university officials prior to board meetings to explain the agency’s thought processes and establish a feedback loop that previously did not exist.

The sunset review was not solely negative, and the board continues to be a major factor in state higher education policy.

The approval of SB 215 allows the agency to continue for at least another 12 years without another review, the maximum allowed by law. And it will continue to collect and analyze massive amounts of data, administer financial aid programs, and develop and monitor the state’s long-range master plan.

"We’re going to support the boards of regents with good data and good analysis, because that’s what we do best,” Chavez said.

In fact, the board is currently working on the state’s next 15-year plan, since its Closing the Gaps plan, launched in 2000 in an effort to bring Texas' higher education outcomes up to par with those in other large states, is in its final year. Coordinating board officials were hopeful that the heightened levels of transparency and interactivity poised to become their new normal could yield positive results as the state’s higher education community transitions into this next phase.

Lest there be any confusion, Heldenfels noted: “The high expectations for excellence, productivity, and affordability in higher education are stronger now than ever. I am confident that our regents will execute these responsibilities with the very best interests of tuition-payers and taxpayers in mind as we continue to improve student access and success."

Newsreel: Nathan Hecht, Perry Goes East, Tobacco Money

This week in the Texas Weekly Newsreel: The Texas Supreme Court gets a new chief justice, Gov. Rick Perry is headed to Maryland and a former Texas attorney general thinks the state might be entitled to billions more in tobacco settlement money. 

Inside Intelligence: About Those Power Lines...

The insiders are expecting some shifts in power after the 2014 elections, no matter who wins the elections.

After nearly 13 years on the job, Gov. Rick Perry has amassed enormous power in the governor’s office, partly through his appointments and partly because dozens and dozens of people who worked in his office are now running most of the state’s executive departments and agencies. Perry isn’t seeking re-election, so what’s next?

More than half of the insiders expect power to shift back to the legislative branch after Perry leaves; 37 percent expect things to remain as they are.

Who’ll be the most influential state official in 2015? The insiders see the speaker and the governor at the top of the heap with the lieutenant governor — whoever it might be — getting only one vote in five. With four prominent Republicans seeking that job — including incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — the responses were mixed as to whether the next lite guv will have the powers Dewhurst has now: 31 percent said it will remain about the same, while 20 percent expect it to be a less powerful post and 23 expect it to be more powerful.

Finally, we asked what the House will look like after the 2014 elections, and more than half think it will look about like it does now. Nearly three in 10 expect it to be more conservative, while 17 percent said it will be less conservative.

We collected comments along the way and have attached a full set; a sampling follows:

Will power shift back to the legislative branch when the governor’s office changes hands in 2015?

• "No matter who the new governor is, male or female, the legislature initially will flex a little bit of that muscle that's gone soft."

• "It must. The legislature will have its usual amount of turnover and ambition, but the governor will be someone who has not had decades dealing chits and making board appointments and trading favors so he/she will be comparatively weaker in comparison to the legislature."

• "Depends on the style and leadership of the South, West, and East wings of the Capitol. Today, the South wing dominates; West is strengthening; East is a joke."

• "Maybe the Senate, but not the House. Turnover has limited the experience-level of members. Not sure House members would know what to do. And considering the make up of that body, that's not a bad thing."

• "With a new governor, the Legislature seems to always retake power, if only for a session or two. Their experience in the arena gives both chambers an upper hand when the new governor and his/her staff get their feet on the ground. One exception was Bush who won a tough battle on a limited number of issues, so the Legislature worked off of the fact that the voters endorsed his issues."

• "Texas' legislature lacks strong leadership...Abbott and staff are ambitious, so it's difficult to envision much change."

• "Yes, because the Republicans in control of the House and Senate are not going to take marching orders from Governor Wendy Davis."

With a new governor in place, who will be the most influential state official over the new few years?

• "The Speaker should be the most influential unless it turns out all three top officers are new."

• "By constitutional design, it should be the Lite Gov, but we'll see how that shakes out..."

• "Maybe not as influential, but stick with Governor's Office."

• "Perry has built that office into a position of power and authority. It will remain that way. Any future governor who does not embrace and utilize it will do so at their own detriment."

• "The Speaker should be the most influential, but he has to win the races he hopes to win in the Primary to assure himself of influence. Otherwise, he'll be ringmaster of infighting while the D's look on (again). Until we see who wins the primaries, we won’t really know."

• "If he has a House which can be managed, Straus should emerge as the clear leader. He was often the only adult in the room this past session."

After the 2014 election, the lieutenant governor’s role in the Senate will be:

• "Seeing how the Lite Gov derives most of his legislative power from the Senate rules, it really depends on the outcome of the SD-10 race. If R's flip it, then it won't matter because of the super majority--look for a less powerful Lite Gov."

• "Any of the three challengers will actually take the role of a Lt. Governor and make it stronger and more successful. They will have an agenda."

• "Depends. If it’s Patrick, it will be less. If it’s Patterson, it will be more. If it’s Staples, it will be the same. If it’s Dewhurst, we are all surprised, but the Senate will be in control."

• "If Dewhurst or Patrick are elected, the Lite Gov role will be diminished by the Senators. Patterson and Staples have the potential to be more powerful than the office is now."

• "All depends upon who it is."

• "The notion that the Lt. Gov. is the most powerful person in Texas is no longer true in anyway that matters. That is partly the Dewhurst legacy and partly the result of Perry using the media to transform the role of Texas Governor into the actual leader of the state."

After the 2014 election, the House will be:

• "Until Obama is out, more conservative legislators will be elected. The electorate's action is a direct response to the overreach of Obama's administration."

• "Tea party picks up more republican seats."

• "There are many conservative-minded members, but they need guidance and direction to focus their efforts. The outcome depends on whether Abbott can set a tone and carry out an agenda that is as effective and conservative as Perry's."

• "State is slowly becoming less conservative, but off-year elections have lower turnout and favor the GOP base."

• "The squishy Republicans won't prevail anywhere, but the Tea Parties who are challenging some of the most right-leaning House members won't prevail either -- they may pick up a couple of seats, but there's no momentum to throw them out."

• "Hard to get more 'conservative,' if by 'conservative' you mean incapable of rational discussion on the future of Texas." 

Our thanks to this week’s participants: Gene Acuna, Cathie Adams, Jenny Aghamalian, Victor Alcorta, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, Jay Arnold, Louis Bacarisse, Charles Bailey, Dave Beckwith, Rebecca Bernhardt, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Chris Britton, David Cabrales, Raif Calvert, Lydia Camarillo, Kerry Cammack, Marc Campos, Thure Cannon, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Corbin Casteel, William Chapman, Harold Cook, Addie Mae Crimmins, Chad Crow, Beth Cubriel, Randy Cubriel, Hector De Leon, June Deadrick, Nora Del Bosque, Tom Duffy, Jeff Eller, Jack Erskine, John Esparza, Jon Fisher, Wil Galloway, Norman Garza, Dominic Giarratani, Bruce Gibson, Stephanie Gibson, Eric Glenn, Kinnan Golemon, John Greytok, Jack Gullahorn, Clint Hackney, Anthony Haley, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, Jim Henson, Shanna Igo, Deborah Ingersoll, Cal Jillson, Jason Johnson, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Robert Kepple, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Sandy Kress, Dale Laine, Nick Lampson, Pete Laney, Luke Legate, Leslie Lemon, Ruben Longoria, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Dan McClung, Debra Medina, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Nelson Nease, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Todd Olsen, Gardner Pate, Robert Peeler, Jerry Philips, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Allen Place, Royce Poinsett, Gary Polland, Jay Pritchard, Jay Propes, Bill Ratliff, Brian Rawson, Tim Reeves, Patrick Reinhart, David Reynolds, Grant Ruckel, Jason Sabo, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Stan Schlueter, Bruce Scott, Robert Scott, Steve Scurlock, Christopher Shields, Julie Shields, Jason Skaggs, Ed Small, Martha Smiley, Todd Smith, Larry Soward, Dennis Speight, Jason Stanford, Bill Stevens, Bob Strauser, Charles Stuart, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Sherry Sylvester, Russ Tidwell, Trey Trainor, Vicki Truitt, Ware Wendell, David White, Darren Whitehurst, Seth Winick, Lee Woods, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

The Calendar

Saturday, Sept. 14

  • National Federation of Republican Assemblies annual convention; Hyatt Regency, Fort Worth (9 a.m.)

Monday, Sept. 16

  • Birthday celebration for Julián and Joaquin Castro; Pearl Stable, San Antonio (6-9 p.m.)

Sept. 27-29

  • 2013 Texas Tribune Festival (tickets and more information available here)

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

The state’s 2014 primaries will be held in March — using the congressional and legislative maps approved by lawmakers this summer, a federal panel of judges ruled, at the same time rejecting the state’s request to drop legal challenges to the House and congressional maps approved by lawmakers earlier this year. The San Antonio-based judges said they didn't have time to finally settle the legal disputes over the state’s redistricting maps before those elections, which are scheduled for March, but told the state to proceed with those maps until the lawsuits have played out.

Former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales wants the state to reopen the tobacco litigation that ended his public career and landed him in federal prison, saying the state might be entitled to some of the billions of dollars that were awarded to outside attorneys in that case. In a letter to current Attorney General Greg Abbott, Morales said that documents sealed after his conviction and the settlement of the state’s tobacco litigation might contain information that “may well entitle the state to seek the forfeiture of the attorney fees awarded in the Texas tobacco lawsuit.”

Sixteen Democratic state lawmakers have called on the Texas Military Forces (TXMF) to process veteran benefits claims for same-sex spouses. The state representatives sent a letter to Maj. Gen. John Nichols asking him to allow the Texas National Guard to enroll same-sex spouses in its veteran benefits program at state-operated installations. Currently, Texas National Guard members who wish to enroll same-sex spouses must travel to federally operated campuses within the state, which now offer such benefits following a recent directive from the U.S. Department of Defense. Earlier, TXMF requested an opinion from the state attorney general; statutorily, the AG has 120 days to issue an opinion.

Amid fears that systematic cheating on state standardized exams could extend beyond an embattled West Texas district — and doubts about its own ability to investigate allegations of improper practices — the state agency charged with overseeing Texas public schools is stepping up its scrutiny of accountability violations. The Texas Education Agency’s new Office of Complaints, Investigations and School Accountability is slated to open Sept. 30. It was created after the State Auditor’s Office released a highly critical report that concluded the agency had failed to fully review past claims of cheating and lacked a process to adequately address them in the future.

The University of Texas System has hired Hilder & Associates, a Houston-based law firm, as outside counsel to assist in its dealings with the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. The legislative committee is conducting an investigation and considering filing articles of impeachment against one of the System's regents, Wallace Hall, though its charge is broad enough to allow for the filing of such articles against any of the regents or, for that matter, any gubernatorial appointees.

Political People and their Moves

Gov. Rick Perry named Nathan Hecht, who’s been on the Texas Supreme Court since January 1, 1989, to be the next chief justice there. Hecht says he’ll run for a full term in the post next year. He replaces Wallace Jefferson, who is resigning at the end of the month. Perry has yet to name a ninth judge to that court.

The governor appointed Robert De Hoyos of Austin to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission. De Hoyos is an exec with Tenaris North America.

Katrina Pierson, best known for her involvement in the Dallas Tea Party, will challenge U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, in CD-32. She starts that adventure with an endorsement from FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports Libertarian-leaning Republican candidates.

Ryan Sitton, who lost a House race last year to state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, will run for Railroad Commission in 2014. He joins a crowded pack that became even more crowded this week with the entry of former state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center. The first trick in that race will be bringing enough (or finding enough) money to the fight to get in front of voters — and ahead of the other Republicans. 

State Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, fired off a list of 100 Tea Party activists from around the state he said have endorsed his campaign for attorney general. One of his opponents, state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, countered with endorsements from “ten top legal advisors to Ted Cruz.”

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who is running for comptroller, picked up the endorsement of Tim Lambert, a former national committeeman for the RNC and the head of the Texas Home School Coalition. 

Democrat Celia Israel won the endorsement of the Texas Association of Realtors’ political arm in the HD-50 special election in Austin. Israel is one of four candidates in the race to replace state Rep. Mark Strama, who quit earlier this year. There’s a bidness tie here: Israel is a Realtor. The other candidates: Democrats Rico Reyes and Jade Chang Sheppard, and Republican Mike VanDeWalle. That election is on November 5, and the seat will be on the ballot again in a year.

State Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, won’t seek a sixth term in HD-58 next year. 

Clayton Stewart is taking over the Texas Medical Association’s political action committee this month, replacing David Reynolds, who left to hand out a consulting shingle. Stewart was most recently with the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists.

Guy Deidrich, who had been the Texas A&M System’s lead on state and federal relations, will be acting vice chancellor of strategic initiatives, replacing Brett Giroir in that job. Giroir is taking over the Texas A&M Health Science Center. Jenny Jones, who is already in the legislative operation, will take over as acting director of it.

Quotes of the Week

Are you willing to return your Nobel Peace Prize?

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, in a press release listing several questions for President Barack Obama on military action in Syria

Instead of engaging in PR stunts, Gov. Perry should come to Maryland to see firsthand the better choices that have led to these better results.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in response to Rick Perry taking his job-poaching ad campaign to that state

I didn’t even know Ted Cruz was potentially a candidate until somebody pointed it out to me the other day.

GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson on the 2016 GOP presidential field, quoted in National Journal

I’m just continually surprised that some people still want to argue that tort reform didn’t work.

Gov. Rick Perry at an event on Monday commemorating the 10th anniversary of legislation limiting medical liability

It’s time for us to recognize that it’s not civilized to forcibly medicate someone to execute them. That doesn’t make any sense.

John Stickels, attorney for death row inmate Steven Staley, in the Dallas Morning News

I know I'm not the best bookkeeper in the world, but when you start looking, and you see that they haven't paid, you don't have to be a genius — you just start counting.

Goliad City Councilwoman Liz Holsey, on city economic development loans in default, in the Victoria Advocate