Politics Could Determine Travis County DA's Future

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg speaks to members of the media following a November 2010 trial.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg speaks to members of the media following a November 2010 trial.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said she won’t resign despite pleading guilty to drunken driving and being sentenced to 45 days in prison, though the drumbeat for her to do so is getting louder.

It's a decision that may have its roots in party politics. 

That’s because the DA in left-leaning Travis County oversees the state-funded public integrity unit, which investigates allegations of malfeasance against elected officials, and has been a thorn in the side of GOP lawmakers.

If Lehmberg resigns, as the Austin American-Statesman has editorialized that she should — or if she's forced out by a lawsuit under a rarely used tenet of state law that authorizes the removal of county officials over drunkenness — Gov. Rick Perry would get to appoint a replacement to finish out her term, which isn’t set to expire until 2016. That would almost certainly put a Republican (or a conservative Democrat Perry believed could hold the seat in future elections) in the highly politicized post.

Josh Havens, a Perry spokesman, said that whenever there is a DA vacancy, the governor appoints the replacement, "just like what happened in Kaufman County" this month after the murder of that jurisdiction's chief prosecutor and his wife. 

 

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said Lehmberg should not resign. "She’s taken that office and done wonders with that office and it’s one of the most respected," he said. "If she were belligerent and fighting it and not willing to recognize that she’d done wrong, that would be a different issue."

He acknowledged that his stance is rooted firmly in politics. "Anybody that Rick Perry appoints is going to be far less qualified than our current district attorney in Travis County," he said, "even if you take in to consideration this mistake that she’s made."

The Travis County DA holds the lead responsibility for enforcing the state’s government and election code. It was created under the leadership of Ronnie Earle, the Democrat who served as Travis County DA for three decades until his retirement in 2008. Earle captured national attention with his investigations into former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and became the poster child for what Republicans view as the unit’s politically motivated prosecutions.

Dismantling the unit is a perennial platform plank of the Texas Republican Party, and numerous members of the GOP, including DeLay and Hutchison, have criticized what they view as its politically motivated prosecutions. 

The morning after her drunk driving arrest, a YNN reporter asked Lehmberg if she would resign. 

"No," she said, before seeming to re-evaluate. "Well no, I don't think I need to."

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.