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Updated: Chief Justice Pushes for "Innocence Commission"

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson pushed lawmakers to establish a commission to investigate wrongful convictions at his biannual State of the Judiciary speech on Wednesday.

by Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson delivers his State of the Judiciary speech in the House chamber on Mar. 6, 2013.

Updated, March 5, 12 p.m.: 

At his biennial speech in front of the Legislature, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson reiterated his calls for more funding for civil legal aid, indigent defense and juvenile justice reform, and pushed for the establishment of an "innocence commission" to investigate wrongful convictions. 

Presenting his State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Jefferson said that "wrongful convictions leave our citizens vulnerable, as actual perpetrators remain free" and recommended the Legislature create a commission "to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases, and to establish statewide reforms." He cited the recent exoneration of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for murder.

The creation of such a commission nearly passed in 2011, but failed at the last minute. Part of the opposition has come from Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit organization that attempts to overturn wrongful convictions and investigate why they happen in the first place. He said recently that such a commission would have to be “extremely well-funded,” and would more likely become “a paper commission that would give a lot of people an excuse to turn away from a lot of the real issues we face in the criminal justice system."

But the bill creating such a commission, House Bill 166, by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, got a favorable review from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday.

Jefferson also pushed for indigent defense and more money for civil legal aid. "We must do more," he said, "to keep the courthouse doors open for all of our neighbors." He called on lawmakers to increase the amount of funding dedicated to organizations that provide indigent civil legal aid and criminal defense.

Jefferson touted reforms in creating an electronic filing system to lessen the use of paper in courts statewide. "Our courts operate much like they did in 1891," he said, "with paper, stamps on paper, cabinets for paper, staples, storage, shredding of paper." He backed Senate Bill 1146, by state Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to decrease the cost of electronic filing, which he called "a key to ensuring access to our judicial system.

"The era of big paper is over," he said, prompting laughs and applause from lawmakers.

Finally, Jefferson announced the creation of a special committee of the Texas Judicial Council to look at reforming the state's guardianship system, in which court appointees make decisions and manage the interests of incapacitated individuals. "An exploding elderly population will stress the guardianship system," he said. "We must begin to address these issues and prepare." Currently, he said, Texas has 368 state-certified guardians handling 5,000 guardianships. The number of individuals needing guardianship, he said, is 40,000.

Original story: For the second time in two years, the state's top judge wants lawmakers to focus on students, this time asking them to reform school discipline and to stop "over-criminalizing" misbehavior in the state's classrooms. 

Two years ago, in his last State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, argued that tickets and citations for minor, nonviolent offenses by students should be a last resort. “Charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavioral issues exacerbates the problem,” he said. “Of course, disruptive behavior must be addressed, but criminal records close doors to opportunities that less punitive intervention would keep open.”

As he returns Wednesday to deliver a new State of the Judiciary address, Jefferson is pushing a trio of specific recommendations for how to keep students with behavioral issues from entering the criminal justice system as adults.

Senate Bill 393 would end the practice of ticketing for students with disciplinary problems that are currently considered criminal misdemeanors, and replace it with a system of “progressive sanctions,” including warning letters, community service and referrals to counseling. SB 394 would expand confidentiality for youths who have had misdemeanors dismissed, to keep their records clean. SB 395 would allow juveniles convicted of certain nonviolent offenses to settle their court costs through community service, or have them waived if they are indigent. All three were authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Ticketing for nonviolent misdemeanors forces students to go to court, Jefferson told the Senate Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday. In addition to being a waste of resources, he said, that practice makes it more difficult for students to turn their lives around. “What used to be, in our day, a trip to the principal's office now lands you in court,” he said. “We're overcriminalizing low-level, nonviolent offenses in the classroom ... and then they're on a path to our criminal justice system.”

All three bills, Jefferson said, have been recommended by the Texas Judicial Counsel, the policy arm of the Texas Supreme Court. They all also have the support of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. The use of these tickets, said Jeanette Moll, a juvenile justice policy analyst with that organization, “does nothing to address underlying behavior, and in fact clogs up court dockets, preventing them from dealing with actual risks to public safety.”

In the past, Jefferson has used the biennial State of the Judiciary address to urge the Legislature to protect funding for civil legal aid for individuals who cannot afford lawyers for divorces, foreclosures and other civil matters. That push was renewed last week by another member of the Texas Supreme Court, Justice Nathan Hecht.

Hecht called on lawmakers to increase the amount of funding from the attorney general's office dedicated to organizations that provide indigent legal aid. Currently, when the state goes after violations of consumer protection, public health or general welfare laws, the attorney general can take the state's winnings and give it to legal aid organizations, but the amount is capped at $10 million.

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Several bills, including SB 635 by state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, would raise the cap from $10 million to $50 million. "Our civil legal system is complex, and there are people who are unable to navigate," Duncan said last week. "This program has run short because of problems we've all been seeing with our economy."

Another regular feature of these speeches is a call for lawmakers to revisit the way judges are selected. Currently, the judges are elected in partisan contests. "A justice system based on Democratic or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted," Jefferson said during his last speech before the Legislature.

This session, several bills aim to address this issue. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed SB 103, which would end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, where a single selection of Democrat or Republican at the top of the ballot carries through elections for all offices, including judges. Two years ago, Jefferson explicitly called for this policy change, saying straight-ticket voting led to "hordes of judges replaced for no good reason."

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Courts Criminal justice Public education State government Texas Legislature Texas Supreme Court