Texas Voting Rights Dispute Enters Another Round

Texas and the Obama administration are at odds over the Voting Rights Act, but all that’s really changed is the venue.

In 2011, the Legislature drew new political maps, adjusting congressional and legislative districts to accommodate growth in the population and — since it was a Republican Legislature at the time — to try to ensure a Republican majority for the next decade. Democrats would have done the same thing, if they’d had a majority. We know that because that’s what happened in 1991.

Lawmakers adopted a tough law in 2011 requiring Texans to produce state-approved photo IDs before their votes can be counted.

Both the maps and the voter ID law got stuck in the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court unstuck things earlier this summer with a ruling that effectively removed federal oversight over Texas election laws.

But the Department of Justice came charging back in, arguing in the redistricting case that Texas has a recent history of discrimination in its voting laws and ought to be asking for federal permission whenever it changes its election laws. Last month, the feds sued to block use of the voter ID law, saying it put an undue burden on the state’s poorest voters, who are also disproportionately minorities.

“The state of Texas’s history of official racial discrimination against its African-American and Hispanic citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the federal lawyers wrote in their voter ID lawsuit. “Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”

The public arguments here have a potayto-potahto quality to them. The law doesn’t prevent lawmakers from drawing political maps that give one party an advantage over its rivals. That’s politics. It does prevent them from drawing maps or changing election laws if the effect of those changes is to reduce or eliminate minority voting rights.

Since minority voters tend to vote for Democrats, and since most of the state’s legislative and congressional Democrats are also minorities, those two things are easy to conflate. Did things land where they landed because of politics, or because of race?

Both the maps and the voter ID law are now in federal court, with Democrats and the Obama administration moving aggressively on one side and Republicans and Texas statewide officeholders on the other. During the legislative sessions, the Republicans have been on offense with the Democrats on defense. Now, in court, those tables are turned — at least in the styling of the cases — and judges will work out the questions over politics, race and the law.

The prize? An advantage at the ballot box. 

Guns Could Be Issue in Governor's Race

If state Sen. Wendy Davis gets into the race for Texas governor, abortion won’t be the only hot-button social issue dividing the major candidates.

The topic of gun restrictions will spice things up, too.

Davis, who became an instant political celebrity after filibustering a restrictive abortion bill in June, voted in favor of allowing students to carry guns in their vehicles on college campuses. She is a gun owner and has said she believes the Second Amendment guarantees Americans that right. In a lot of states, that would probably put her in the pro-gun camp.

But this is Texas, where licensed gun toters are allowed to bypass the metal detectors at the state Capitol and the sitting governor once shot a coyote to death while jogging. Ann Richards, the last Democratic governor, found out the hard way that getting between Texans and their guns can be politically dangerous. She opposed concealed handgun legislation and vetoed a referendum on it, handing George W. Bush a great campaign issue in 1994. Texans got a concealed carry law in Bush’s first session as governor.

Despite the risks, Davis, known for waging sometimes lonely political battles, has not been afraid to pick a fight over guns — in particular over gun shows.

As a member of the Fort Worth City Council, Davis tried to impose restrictions on guns shows held at municipal facilities. She wanted to ensure that people were buying from licensed dealers or otherwise faced background checks.

Under current law, nothing prevents people at gun shows from buying guns from other people attending them. Critics say evil-doers exploit this loophole by buying and selling firearms at gun shows, often in large quantities, that later show up at crime scenes. According to a recent report in the Dallas Observer, for example, a Texas man went to numerous gun shows around the state to purchase dozens of assault rifles that authorities say were sold at a high profit to buyers who sent them to Mexico.

According to the report, one of his gun show stops was the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, which would have been regulated by the restrictions Davis unsuccessfully sought.

In a recent interview, Davis didn’t back down from her position on gun shows, though she acknowledged it’s not a politically popular one. She said that if she were governor, she would leave the issue to the will of the Legislature but would happily sign gun show regulations into law. 

“I haven’t pursued it as a senator because I know it’s like spitting in the wind,” she said. “But I still believe it’s the right thing. And if I were governor and a bill came to my desk that provided for background checks at gun shows, I would sign that.”

That position puts her at odds with the front-running GOP candidate for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott. When Travis County and the city of Austin were mulling gun show restrictions several months ago, Abbott warned on Twitter that they better start preparing for “a double-barreled lawsuit.”

Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch says the attorney general “opposes any new laws or ordinances — local, state or federal — to limit the rights of law-abiding gun owners.” That’s not going to change if Abbott becomes governor, Hirsch said.

“As an avid hunter and member of the Texas State Rifle Association and National Rifle Association, Greg Abbott will continue to fight for the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans,” Hirsch said.

Behind the Class of 2014, Texas' Demographic Future

When the high school class of 2014 graduates this spring, it will mark the beginning of a new era for Texas public schools.

The current crop of seniors will likely be among the last not containing a majority of Hispanic students. It will also, based on preliminary enrollment data from the 2012-13 school year, probably fall among the last without a majority of students from impoverished backgrounds.

Neither milestone is a surprise — they come as a result of longstanding demographic shifts in Texas public schools.

Hispanics became the majority of total public school students for the first time in 2011, growing by about 10 percentage points over the decade since 2000. Since that same year, the overall percentage of economically disadvantaged students has also grown, from less than half to 60 percent of all public school students — more than double a 20 percent increase in the public school population as a whole. But the bulk of those students are concentrated in the younger grades, with the percentage from economically disadvantaged backgrounds steadily declining to a low of 46 percent in the class of 2012, the latest year data is available. That is soon set to change as the population of students in the lower grades make their way through the school system.

Texas' numbers stand out even more in a national context. In the same period, public school enrollment only grew by about 5 percent overall. Hispanic student populations increased by about 6.5 percent nationally.

Both trends are expected to continue. An analysis from Steve Murdock, director of Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, shows that of the roughly 979,000 children added to the state’s under-18 population from 2000 to 2010, about 931,000 were Hispanic. By 2050, Murdock’s projection shows, the number of Texas public school students is expected to swell to 9 million from roughly 5 million now, and nearly two-thirds will be Hispanic. The overall percentage of Anglo students will drop by half to about 15 percent.

The changes present both challenges and opportunities to Texas public schools. According to state data, Hispanic students have been statistically less likely to leave high school with a diploma than their Anglo peers. Of the Hispanic students who do graduate, few are prepared for college. In 2011, 42 percent met college-readiness benchmarks in both English and math, compared with 65 percent of Anglo students. Among economically disadvantaged students and those with limited English proficiency, the gap continues to widen. Thirty-eight percent of students who came from low-income households did well enough on their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills or college entrance exams to qualify as “college ready.” Only 5 percent of those with limited English language skills did so.

But the state has shown improvement in academic achievement for both Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students. In 2012, it climbed to 84.3 percent for Hispanic students and 85 percent for those from impoverished backgrounds. That’s up from 68.5 and 69 percent, respectively, in 2007.

How Texas public schools navigate the demographic shift — and whether the Legislature has provided enough resources for them to do so successfully — is a focus of an ongoing lawsuit over the state’s school finance system. Hearings in that case, which will consider changes made in the latest legislative session, are set to resume in January 2014.

Newsreel: Replacing Jefferson, Finance Primaries

In this edition of the Texas Weekly Newsreel: Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson is hanging up his robe, and court watchers are guessing at his replacement. And political candidates are busy trying to convince potential donors they're worth an investment.

Inside Intelligence: About Those Judges...

Wallace Jefferson is leaving his post as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, prompting us to ask the insiders about the who ought to replace him and about the high court in general.

Justice Nathan Hecht, the longest-serving member of the court, got the most support for Jefferson’s job, followed by Justices Don Willett and Eva Guzman. About one in five insiders said the new chief justice should come from outside the court.

Jefferson has said the state should replace partisan judicial elections with a merit selection system, and 69 percent of the insiders agree. They were split right down the middle on an idea on which Jefferson has taken no public position — combining the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals into one high court, like most states have.

Finally, 73 percent of the insiders agreed with Jefferson’s idea of studying the criminal justice system for an overhaul to try to cut the number of wrongful convictions.

We collected comments along the way and a full set of them is attached. A sampling follows:


Who should Gov. Rick Perry select to head the Texas Supreme Court now that Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson is resigning?

• "Remove politics and ideology away from the decision, and appoint someone who has experience and knowledge; not an agenda, or a Twitter account."

• "Hecht is the intellectual leader of the post-'Justice for Sale Texas'."

• "Appointing Willett as Chief would ensure the court maintains a conservative focus. However, Willett may not want to run twice in row, so the Governor may want to consider Jeff Boyd."

• "Heck, only Hecht, Green and Devine were not appointed by Perry. Appoint Hecht, the most senior Justice."

• "Guzman gives window dressing, but probably isn't the best choice."


Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has argued for merit selection of judges instead of partisan elections. Is that a good idea?

• "Not for Texas-- the populace doesn't want a small group of insiders dictating who does the judging. If such a good idea, do a trial of such in Travis County where all of the administrative appeals occur for about a decade."

• "Since at least the mid-1980's, a bill has been filed nearly each session on this issue; safe bet is that 9 out of 10 contributors is an attorney/firm with business before the court(s). Perception is reality."

• "A better idea would be to prohibit individuals and parties who have active (or recent) claims before the court from contributing money to judges races... duh."

• "I think we should have merit selection of voters instead."

• "Merit selection by who?"

• "'Merit' means that politics disrupts the people's choices. Look what happened in Iowa. Merit selection is a FAILED idea."

• "There is no such thing as 'merit selection' of judges. There are partisan elections and partisan appointments. Electing judges is not a particularly good system for getting the best people on the bench, but states that appoint judges -- either by executive, legislative nomination, commission, or whatever, do not do better -- selection by patronage is what usually results."


Should the state’s two high courts — for civil and criminal cases — be combined into one Supreme Court?"

• "It may be antiquated but I like keeping them separate. It keeps each court focused on its role and makes the judges more accountable."

• "Despite Judge Keller, the CCA opinions are more considered as to criminal law. The civil lawyers serving as judges on the Courts of Appeals have shown a lack of criminal law understanding."

• "Maybe if the justices were appointed instead of elected, but until that changes, NO. Unless you see a dentist for your heart disease and a plumber for your electrical problems--because that's the equivalent of having justices who have only practiced civil law doling out criminal law decisions. /shudder/"

• "The specialization of lawyers is too overwhelming. Rare is a civil lawyer who knows anything about criminal law and vice versa."

• "Two entirely different disciplines."


Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said the state should consider overhauling its criminal justice system because of numerous cases of wrongful convictions. Is that necessary?

• "I think DNA should be used wherever possible to keep the innocent people out of jail and release those wrongfully convicted. I don't know if that would be considered an 'overhaul' but I would support it."

• "The burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond all doubt. There are no more wrongful convictions now than in the past. Now, however, there are a lot of carpetbaggers out to do away with the death penalty and use a few sloppy convictions to bolster their arguments."

• "New evidence and improved scientific abilities don't signal a broken system. It's a good sign that the current system is flexible enough to improve itself."

• "Seems like the system is working if we're learning about the convictions-the appeals process is working. Maybe instead we should look into local prosecutors and their methods."

Our thanks to this week’s participants: Gene Acuna, Cathie Adams, Brandon Aghamalian, Jenny Aghamalian, Victor Alcorta, Clyde Alexander, George Allen, Jay Arnold, Charles Bailey, Dave Beckwith, Rebecca Bernhardt, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Chris Britton, David Cabrales, Raif Calvert, Lydia Camarillo, Kerry Cammack, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Corbin Casteel, Elizabeth Christian, James Clark, John Colyandro, Harold Cook, Kevin Cooper, Randy Cubriel, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, June Deadrick, Nora Del Bosque, Tom Duffy, David Dunn, Jack Erskine, John Esparza, Norman Garza, Dominic Giarratani, Bruce Gibson, Stephanie Gibson, Kinnan Golemon, Daniel Gonzalez, Jim Grace, John Greytok, Clint Hackney, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, Susan Hays, John Heasley, Jim Henson, Ken Hodges, Deborah Ingersoll, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Robert Kepple, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Sandy Kress, Dale Laine, Nick Lampson, Pete Laney, Dick Lavine, James LeBas, Luke Legate, Leslie Lemon, Ruben Longoria, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Luke Marchant, Matt Matthews, Dan McClung, Mike McKinney, Robert Miller, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Keir Murray, Nelson Nease, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Todd Olsen, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Robert Peeler, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Richard Pineda, Allen Place, Royce Poinsett, Kraege Polan, Gary Polland, Jay Propes, Bill Ratliff, Karen Reagan, Tim Reeves, Patrick Reinhart, David Reynolds, Kim Ross, Grant Ruckel, Jason Sabo, Andy Sansom, Stan Schlueter, Bruce Scott, Robert Scott, Steve Scurlock, Bradford Shields, Christopher Shields, Jason Skaggs, Ed Small, Todd Smith, Larry Soward, Dennis Speight, Jason Stanford, Bill Stevens, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Charles Stuart, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Sherry Sylvester, Jay Thompson, Russ Tidwell, Gerard Torres, Trey Trainor, Vicki Truitt, Ware Wendell, David White, Darren Whitehurst, Woody Widrow, Seth Winick, Alex Winslow, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

The Calendar

Monday, Sept. 9

  • Williamson County Republican Women lunch with George P. Bush; Williamson Conference Center, Round Rock (11 a.m.)
  • Fundraiser for Rep. Matt Schaefer; Holiday Inn - Tyler South, Tyler (6 p.m.)
  • Todd Staples' campaign bus tour kickoff; Jacksonville (9 a.m.)

Wednesday, Sept. 11

  • Fundraiser for Rep. Philip Cortez; Four Seasons Hotel, Austin (4:30-6:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Sept. 12

  • Fundraiser for state Sen. Sylvia Garcia; Austin Club (5-6:30 p.m.)
  • Fundraiser for state Sen. Donna Campbell; Serrano's, Austin (11 a.m.-1 p.m.)

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Before a crowd of hundreds at City Hall, the San Antonio City Council adopted a controversial ordinance aimed at preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. San Antonio had been one of the only major Texas cities that did not offer protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston all have similar policies in place. The ordinance, which goes into effect immediately, prevents local businesses from discriminating against LGBT people. Before the ordinance, proponents claimed, they could be kicked out at a business owner’s discretion.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told congressional leaders in a letter that the Obama administration would no longer enforce a law banning same-sex spouses of veterans from receiving military benefits. He said the Justice Department had chosen to extend the Supreme Court's rationale in its decision overturning part of the Defense of Marriage Act to Title 38, the public law that governs veterans' benefits, calling the definition of marriage in both cases "substantively identical." The news a very different announcement by the Texas National Guard that it will not provide benefits for same-sex couples. Maj. Gen. John Nichols, adjutant general of Texas Military Forces, a state agency, said in a memo that the Texas National Guard was prohibited from enrolling same-sex families in its benefits program at state-supported facilities, citing the state Constitution's definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Nichols encouraged couples affected by the policy to request benefits at one of Texas' federal installations instead.

As Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature shot down efforts this year to boost fees statewide for transportation, they also granted exceptions to three Texas counties. Under two bills that passed with little debate, Bexar, El Paso and Webb counties were given the authority to raise their vehicle registration fees by $10, with the extra revenue going toward local transportation projects. Drivers in those three counties will start paying the higher fee starting Jan. 1. The total cost of registration in the three counties will rise from around $65 to $75.

In addition to their regular mid-year reports, Texas officeholders and candidates have to report money they raise during special legislative sessions, like the three this summer. Now that the third of those reports are available, the Texas Tribune has combined disclosures in our analyzer for all three sessions to show you what statewide candidates and officeholders were doing while the Legislature was in special session. These cover contributions from May 27 to Aug. 25, broken down by biggest donors, donor location, by size of donation and by the dates the money came in. 

Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a member of that court since 2001, will resign at the end of this month. Jefferson, the first African-American to lead the court, was an appellate lawyer in San Antonio before Gov. Perry appointed him in 2001. Perry named him chief justice nine years ago this month. Jefferson hasn’t said what he will do next, but said he won’t seek elected office. And the governor hasn’t said who he will appoint to replace the judge.

Political People and their Moves

Rep. Dan Branch picked up endorsements for his attorney general bid from former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips and former Justices Craig Enoch, Harriet O’Neill and Alberto Gonzales

Marissa Patton joins the Austin legislative staff of the Texas Farm Bureau after stints with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Christina Wisdom joins the government affairs group at Gardere Wynn Sewell after several years as veep and general counsel at the Texas Chemical Council.

Joe Peters will head the Driver License Division at the Department of Public Safety. He first started as a state trooper in 1968, retired in 1998 and came back in 2012.

Ann Beeson started as the new executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities this week, replacing Scott McCown, who resigned earlier this year to take a teaching post at the University of Texas law school. Beeson is an attorney most recently posted at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas. She was previously executive director of U.S. programs at the Open Society Foundations and a lawyer in the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed:

Ada Brown of Plano as justice on the 5th Court of Appeals. Brown is a lawyer with McKool Smith, and a former judge and prosecutor.

John Crain of Dallas and Gilbert “Pete” Peterson III of Alpine to the Texas Historical Commission. Crain is president of the Summerlee Foundation. Petterson is an exec at West Texas National Bank. Both are being reappointed.

J. Winston Krause of Austin to chair the Texas Lottery Commission. He’s a lawyer with Krause and Associates.

Deaths: Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson, during his first year in office and just three months after he announced he was fighting cancer. He was 57.

Quotes of the Week

Let the international community and some of the other nations who always ask us to do their dirty work, let them get involved.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Arlington, to The Dallas Morning News on the crisis in Syria

We certainly don’t have a dog in the fight. We should be focused on defending the United States of America. That’s why young men and women sign up to join the military, not to, as you know, serve as al-Qaida’s air force.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on U.S. intervention in Syria

Before I look people in the eye and say, 'Will you spend time volunteering for me, will you dedicate resources to me,' I want to make sure that I'm asking them to do something that I can tell them, with conviction, I believe we can accomplish.

Sen. Wendy Davis, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News

Did I ever call for my son — or the over 100 people I’ve recommended over the years — and ask for special treatment? No, I did not.

Rep. Jim Pitts, denying allegations he used his influence to get his son into the University of Texas Law School

If your activity results in a situation, get married.

Attorney general candidate Barry Smitherman, advising young men not to "casually engage with the other sex"

Generally speaking, we have made great progress in becoming an independent nation, an ‘island nation’ if you will, and I think we want to continue down that path so that if the rest of the country falls apart, Texas can operate as a stand-alone entity with energy, food, water and roads as if we were a closed-loop system.

Smitherman, to WND Weekly