- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Austin American-Statesman. Dec. 18, 2014.

Judge Price is correct to call for elimination of death penalty

Opinions can change as individuals grow and allow new facts to inform their perspective. Opinions are not set in stone; not even for a judge. Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price knows this too well.

After 18 years on the bench, late last month Price declared that he now believes the death penalty should be abolished as a punishment for capital murder, a sentiment we as a board have championed for years.

Coming from a Republican on a court known for both its conservative judges and its lack of inclination to stay executions on appeal, Price’s declaration was unexpected yet welcomed by many, including this board. Death penalty opponents may wish that Price had come to this realization sooner, but we appreciate that such personal reversals can only be made in an individual’s own time.

Price’s recent declaration came as part of a six-page dissent to the court’s rejection of a reprieve for death row inmate Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic murderer who was days from execution.

Panetti was convicted of fatally shooting his in-laws at their Fredericksburg home 22 years ago in front of his estranged wife and young children. Panetti has a long history of documented mental problems and his case has reached the U.S. Supreme Court as many as three times. A federal appeals court halted Panetti’s execution to further review “complex legal questions” in the case.

Putting to death an inmate with a severe and obvious mental illness violates the U.S. Constitution, Price wrote. It was this particular case that proved to be the final straw for Price’s emerging view of the death penalty, he told American-Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell.

Price told the Statesman that his change of heart was years in the making but not necessarily something he was ready to share with the world, particularly because he routinely rules on appeals by death row inmates. Estimates show that Texas has executed about 400 inmates during Price’s tenure on the court. Most of those convicted individuals clearly met the state’s criteria of the death penalty, but some were severely mentally ill or had intellectual disabilities.

In the end, Price said in his first interview on the controversial announcement, he opted for honesty and a chance to stir debate on an issue of lasting importance.

Real legislative discussion over abolishment is long overdue in Texas. Research has long shown that there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty deters crime. And studies have shown that executing a prisoner costs taxpayers three times more money than to imprison someone for 40 years. It also doesn’t assure that the innocent won’t be wrongfully executed.

Even if you overlook moral objections to state executions, there is the fact that Texas is not doing a good job of it.

Last year the American Bar Association released a report that showed the administration of capital punishment in Texas is flawed and suggests the state can improve the investigation, prosecution and post-conviction review of capital murder cases. Among its flaws, according to the report, the Texas death penalty system misses when it comes to fairness and eliminating the risk of executing the innocent.

Texas is not the only state with death penalty issues. In July, a federal judge ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional, writing that lengthy and unpredictable delays have resulted in an arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system.

While the argument continues, Texas has seen some shift in how it handles capital punishment cases. Though Texas built an international reputation on its death penalty, today California and Florida lead in number of executions. From 1997 to 2007, Texas executed an average of 29 people annually, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. This year, the state executed 10.

Some reasons for the drop include the state requiring better legal representation for people facing the capital punishment, giving jurors the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without parole, and increasing the use of DNA and other scientific testing.

Still, the risks of error are high.

To ensure the best outcome in any death penalty case, the investigation, trial and appeal must be flawless. To be less than perfect means errors can ripple through the entire process. That’s a mighty tall order and the very reason Price changed his opinion on capital punishment.

Price told the Statesman his confidence in guilty verdicts has crumbled under a tide of DNA exonerations, reports of shoddy lawyers and scientific advances that have proved forensic experts to be wrong years after a trial. The legal system supporting the death penalty is broken, he said, and the consequences are frightening.

As long as we have a system subject to human failure, mistakes will be made, and that means innocent people will be executed. Eliminating that option, as Price suggests, is the best practice.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dec. 18, 2014.

Austin senator pushes school funding bills: No reason to wait for court to force fixes for known problems

There will be plenty of elephants in the room when the Texas Legislature begins its 140-day biennial session on Jan. 13.

That’s not intended as a reference to the Republican dominance of the House and Senate and statewide offices, although that’s true.

It’s a reference to the heavyweight subjects lawmakers will be expected to confront.

Many of them, as always, have to do with money. The cost of Medicaid and other social programs often dominates a lot of the discussion. Transportation infrastructure funding is a perennial problem.

And then there is the cost of operating public schools.

That’s one elephant that might just hang around at the back of the room the whole session.

Another major lawsuit on the subject (there have been six in the past three decades) is winding its way through the courts.

A state district judge in Austin ruled in August that the current school finance system is unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court will have the final say, but probably not until after the legislative session ends on June 1.

Typically, legislators take serious action on school finance only after receiving a direct order from the Supreme Court.

Not this time, if Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has his way.

House and Senate members have prefiled 18 bills related to school finance, seven of them filed by Watson last week.

Watson, a former Austin mayor who has served in the Senate since 2007, would prod the Legislature to go ahead and address some of the system’s fundamental flaws:

- Dumping the formula adopted in 2006 that reduces state aid to school districts when their local tax revenue goes up.

- Revising the allotment for transportation costs, which has remained static since 1984.

- Addressing a measure meant to take local costs of living into effect when distributing state aid, not revised since 1991.

He’d reduce the amount of local tax income that some districts are required to send to the state, and he’d help colleges and universities that work with local school districts to achieve postsecondary readiness goals.

Watson says there’s no reason to wait to fix things that are wrong. He’s right about that.

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Houston Chronicle. Dec. 17, 2014.

Symbolic gestures: Despite the rhetoric, the truth is the border is much more secure than it was a decade ago.

Texas Department of Public Safety chief Steve McCraw said recently his agency will install 4,000 cameras along the Rio Grande, the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico, as part of the ongoing “border surge” against illegal immigration.

The cameras will be used to replace National Guard troops sent to the border last summer by Gov. Rick Perry, who charged that the federal government was not keeping out the dangerous hordes there - in this case mostly thousands of children trying to escape poverty and violence in Central America.

The cameras, low tech items that snap photos when they sense motion, are included in the $143 million the state has spent or allocated so far to quell the supposed border crisis. We can only hope they have more utility than the National Guard, which was basically a prop for Perry’s presidential ambitions.

The mystery is how we got to this point of spending millions of dollars on a problem that is so overblown. Our state leaders would have us believe the border is a dangerous, crime-ridden hell hole swarming with illegal immigrants, narco kingpins and crazed Middle Eastern terrorists.

The truth is that despite all the rhetoric, the border is much more secure than it was a decade ago. Fewer people are crossing into the United States and those who do are greeted by more Border Patrol agents than ever.

According to the Border Patrol, it apprehended 1,139,282 immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2004 when it had 9,506 agents stationed there. The number of apprehensions is considered a measure of how many people are trying to get in.

In 2013, the last year for which figures are available, 414,397 immigrants were apprehended by a Border Patrol force that had doubled over time to 18,611 agents.

According to the think tank Washington Office on Latin America, FBI statistics show that violent crime along the border also has dropped, with 5,410 violent crimes reported in 2004, versus 4,582 in 2012, the last year for complete figures, this despite significant population growth in the region.

What is true is that tens of thousands of Central Americans, mostly children, flooded the border. It took federal authorities a while to catch up, but the cases are being processed and order restored.

It is also true that drug violence has wracked northern Mexico for years and that illegal drugs are shipped across the border, but the violence mostly stays in Mexico because the drug cartels fear facing U.S. justice. There is a two-way flow, by the way. Americans buy the cartels’ drugs and sell them their guns.

Border officials say there’s no evidence terrorists have crossed, but the truth is that terrorists could come in via Mexico or Canada or by sea, or even by airline and with a visa as the 9/11 terrorists did.

No country such as ours, that so many long to come to, can build an impenetrable wall around itself, either literally or figuratively, nor should it want to.

We are weary of seeing our state’s leaders resort to cheap demagoguery about the border.

We would urge them to replace it with fact-based reason, which might result in constructive policy instead of silly symbolic gestures that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

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Galveston County Daily News. Dec. 19, 2014.

It’s time to fix this law

When state lawmakers gather in Austin next month to wrestle with the great legislative issues of the day, they should at least consider ending a gross fiction that has allowed a substantial illegal industry to flourish for years.

Ostensibly, gambling is illegal in Texas.

If you’re somebody like Tilman Fertitta, for example, a well-known CEO with an actual corporate address and published phone numbers and the like, and you want to invest $700 million or so in a first-class casino complex, you can go to Louisiana, or Oklahoma, or Colorado, or New Mexico or any one of another 20 or so states; but you can’t come to Texas.

There are many good reasons to oppose legalizing casino gambling in Texas. People all along the political spectrum have built compelling arguments around concerns rooted in religion, social welfare theory and just hardball economics. The opponents very well may be correct.

But thanks to a general spinelessness in the Texas Legislature on the issue, we have the worst of all possible worlds.

Gambling happens on an industrial scale day and night, seven days a week in Texas and in the worst possible way. It happens in “game rooms” in rundown strip malls, portable buildings and in the backrooms of convenience stores on machines that have never been checked for honesty.

The operations are cash cows, sometimes collecting tens of thousands of dollars a night, and sometimes attracting armed robbers who commit crimes that local law enforcement has to expend resources investigating and prosecuting.

Nobody seems to know who’s really banking all that cash. Law officers say the true owners are often hidden behind corporate veils so thick and knotted their investigators just can’t afford the time to unravel it all.

Who is behind those veils? Drug cartels with money to launder? Could the nincompoops sticking bills into video slot machines be helping to fund terrorism?

That last bit is probably far-fetched, but not so much so as the law that makes this whole industry possible.

The Texas Legislature would have us believe that grown people will sit on stools for hours feeding their hard-earned money into gambling devices for chances to win rabbits-foot key chains.

The law allows people to possess and operate gambling machines, so long as they don’t operate them as gambling machines. The big fiction is that these game rooms, which are all over the state, are paying off with prizes worth less than $5.

It’s nonsense. Law enforcement doesn’t believe. We don’t believe. Nobody but a politician could, with a straight face, even claim to believe it.

There are only two possible real solutions and they are both very simple:

Make gambling legal in Texas; get it out in the open; regulate and tax it like other states do.

If not that, then make the possession of video gambling devices a serious felony.

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Dec. 19, 2014.

A hometown cheer for the courageous new ICE chief

A lot of Corpus Christi people, us included, are thrilled that native daughter Sarah Saldana was confirmed last week as head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

And not only us. The Dallas Morning News, in an entirely objective way, put Dallas’ own legitimate claim on her by identifying her as the “Dallas-based U.S. Attorney.”

Saldana is the first Hispanic woman to head ICE, the federal government’s second-largest law enforcement agency. Her family and all who knew her at Menger Elementary, Wynn Seale Junior High, Ray High School, Del Mar College and Texas A&M; University-Kingsville should be proud.

But there’s another reason we all should be proud - and watchful and supportive. This job isn’t the ambassadorship to Monaco. ICE chief is a position that will make her a political target in one of the most current and divisive issues of the day - immigration. She soon could face the kind of hostility that Susan Rice has encountered in her service to the Obama administration.

It already has started to some degree. During her confirmation, her support of President Obama’s executive actions to grant worker permits to millions of undocumented immigrants cost her the support of all but two Republican senators. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, expressed much admiration and respect for Saldana, describing her performance as Dallas-area U.S. Attorney as courageous. But the home-state senator withdrew his support, saying, “I will not aid and abet a president dead-set on unilaterally defying our nation’s immigration laws.”

Keep in mind that Cornyn is an old-school polite member of an increasingly impolite institution. And, needless to say, that other home-state senator, Ted Cruz, also voted against her.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said her agreement with the president’s actions reflected “a remarkable disregard for the rule of law that demonstrates the difficulty she’ll have as being the leader of this important ICE agency.”

Remarkable? Here, in a written statement to the Senate in response to a questionnaire, is what she said that caused the ruckus:

“I believe that the president of the United States, as others before him, has legal authority to take executive action to address areas within the purview of the executive branch.”

That doesn’t sound like napalm to us. It sounds logical and thoughtful.

“She works for the guy,” The Morning News quoted Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the two Republicans who voted for her. “I’m not happy about what she said either, but the fact is we need somebody in that position, and I think she would do a good job.”

So there you have it: Our pride and joy from Corpus Christi has a bull’s-eye on her back for backing the policies of the president who nominated her. But at least the irony isn’t lost on every Republican in D.C.

In January a Republican-controlled Congress will convene. Immigration is expected to be high on the agenda. Republicans will be looking for ways to reverse or undermine Obama’s executive actions in granting the work permits and de-emphasizing deportations of immigrant workers. ICE and Saldana’s administration of that agency will be under the microscope. Benghazi-Benghazi-Benghazi-style congressional hearings with her on the hot seat are bound to be in her future.

We congratulate Saldana for her considerable achievement. We admire her courage in taking on this considerable challenge on the national stage at this time in history, and are proud to point out that she is from Corpus Christi, Texas.

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