- Associated Press - Thursday, June 12, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Attorneys representing school districts in Texas’ massive school finance trial said in a filing Thursday that state attorneys who asked the presiding judge to recuse himself haven’t proved he showed bias.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked that the court deny the state’s recusal motion. Austin-based State District Judge John Dietz has refused to recuse himself and a hearing on the matter is set for June 20.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s staff asked Dietz earlier this month to give up the case because of emails he and members of his staff exchanged with attorneys representing the 600-plus school districts suing the state. State attorneys argued that some of the emails were sent without the state’s knowledge and “suggest that the judge is coaching the plaintiffs’ counsel in order to improve their case.”

The emails haven’t been made public.

The plaintiff’s attorneys said that what the state characterized as “coaching” of the plaintiffs “is nothing more than the judge giving guidance as to how he wants the findings revised to reflect his view of the law and the evidence.” The plaintiff’s attorneys added, “This is hardly an uncommon procedure.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also said Dietz “appropriately directed counsel for the prevailing parties to address his edits and comments to the proposed findings, with the full knowledge and consent of all other parties.”

In response to Thursday’s filing by the plaintiffs, Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean said: “The state’s legal brief speaks for itself.”

The case stems from 2011, when the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion in classroom funding, prompting school districts to sue, arguing educational guarantees in the state’s constitution had been violated. The trial opened in October 2012, with the districts saying they no longer had sufficient resources amid rising enrollment and tough state-mandated standardized testing requirements.

Abbott’s office countered that while the school finance system wasn’t perfect, it was constitutional.

In February 2013, Dietz ruled public education funding was inadequate and unfairly distributed between districts in rich and poor areas. That summer, lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in classroom funding while easing testing requirements.

Dietz reopened the case in January to hear evidence on the Legislature’s latest actions.

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