Grand Jury Reform Legislation Headed to Abbott's Desk

Legislation that reforms the state's grand jury system now awaits Gov. Greg Abbott's signature after the House on Sunday approved a compromise between the two chambers.

A bill overhauling Texas' grand jury system is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk after the House gave final approval Sunday to a compromise centering on the diversity of the panels. 

The move brought Texas another step closer to scrapping the "pick-a-pal" method in which judge-appointed commissioners select jurors, an uncommon practice nationwide. Critics say the process, as opposed to randomly selecting jurors from pools of names, can lead to conflicts of interest. 

It is unclear whether Abbott will sign House Bill 2150, but as the legislative session winds down, lawmakers have signaled the governor's office has been involved in fine-tuning the proposal. Last weekend, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, removed language from the Senate version of the bill — at Abbott's request, he said — striking out a provision that would have ordered courts empaneling juries to take into account a county's "demographics related to race, ethnicity, sex and age."

The Senate rejected that change, and members of both chambers met in a conference committee to reach a resolution. House and Senate negotiators ultimately agreed to replace the language in question with a requirement that the jurors be picked from a "fair cross section" of the county. 

The Senate approved the new language Saturday, and the House gave it a final sign-off Sunday by a vote of 86-57. 

Sen. John Whitmire, the Senate sponsor of HB 2150, said Sunday that he preferred the original language on diversity, but he added that Abbott "made it pretty clear" his lawyers saw constitutional issues with specifying categories such as race and ethnicity. Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, said he was nonetheless pleased with the compromise, noting it still makes juror selection a more random process.

"That was not a deal killer," Whitmire said of the diversity provision. "It is a good bill."

The proposal to nix the "pick-a-pal" method has worked its way through the Legislature amid outrage across the country that grand juries have failed to indict police officers in shootings of unarmed men. The proposal has been on somewhat of a rocky ride this session, winning unanimous approval from the House in March, narrowly avoiding death earlier this month and then finding a path to Abbott's desk Sunday, the second-to-last day of the session.

Matthew Watkins contributed reporting.