The next step in nearly two years of litigation over the troubled Texas school finance system is a hearing on whether District Court Judge John Dietz should recuse himself from the case.
In a motion filed Monday, Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office is defending the state, questioned Dietz's impartiality based on a series of emails the judge and his staff sent between March and May to lawyers representing school districts suing the state. Abbott, a Republican who is currently running for governor, argues that the correspondence suggests "the judge is coaching the plaintiffs’ counsel in order to improve their case." The emails have not been made public.
Dietz has not issued any further response to the claim beyond declining to step aside. The matter will be decided by San Antonio Judge David Peeples, who told The Texas Tribune he will likely schedule a hearing for two weeks from now.
The trial, which involves more than 600 school districts serving three-fourths of the state's 5 million public school students, opened in October 2012. The districts sued following a $5.4 billion state budget cut lawmakers passed in 2011, just before a transition to a rigorous new student assessment and accountability system. The districts argue that the state has failed to meet a constitutional requirement to adequately fund public education.
Abbott has faced criticism for his handling of the lawsuit from his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, who has said the attorney general should settle rather than continue to defend the budget cuts in court. In a statement issued Tuesday, Davis said the recusal motion was "a last ditch, desperate effort to delay a decision until after the election."
An initial ruling in the case came last February, when Dietz found that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional both because of inadequate school funding and flaws in the way the state distributes money to districts. But in late January, Dietz reopened evidence in the trial for a four-week period so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature. During the last session, lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements. The judge has yet to issue a revised ruling or his full written decision in the case.