- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. June 14, 2015.

A protection Texas pastors didn’t need

Remember last Sunday, the first Sunday upon which Christian clergy in Texas will preach from their pulpits in the safe embrace of the Pastor Protection Act. Sorry we didn’t mention it the day before for the rabbis’ benefit.

According to Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the law on Thursday of last week: “Pastors now have the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

It was unnecessary for him to say that - also unnecessary for him to sign the law and unnecessary for the Legislature to have passed it.

Abbott can’t not know that pastors already possessed this freedom (apologies to grammarians for the double negative, but it was not unnecessary). Texas pastors have had U.S. First Amendment rights since 1845, when Texas became part of the United States and subject to its laws and protections, including freedom of religion. Our governor is, after all, not just a lawyer but also the state’s immediate past attorney general. He has argued cases successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Making a show of signing this bill into law while declaring Texas now all of a sudden safe for pastors is an intellectually dishonest insult to Texans’ intelligence. It’s also just a way to use government to bash gays. It exists in response to the expectation that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of same-sex marriage.

It shouldn’t need to be pointed out that legalizing gay marriage isn’t the same as compelling clergy to perform or sanction same-sex wedding ceremonies. Letting two consenting adults do something they want to do doesn’t require clergy to do something they don’t want to do.

Proponents of the Pastor Protection Act insist on pretending otherwise. They demand clarification of what didn’t need to be clarified - that clergy can’t be held liable in court for refusing to preside at a same-sex wedding or for declining to bless or otherwise sanction one.

Where, pray tell, is the rash of lawsuits by all of the heterosexual couples who have been refused a church wedding because they aren’t deemed spiritually ready or because one partner is divorced? That was just a rhetorical question, not a mystery up there with the Holy Trinity.

The Pastor Protection Act is born of the logic-defying notion that gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage. Gay marriage can’t invalidate heterosexual marriages any more than it can force anyone who’s not gay to be gay.

As silly as such notions are, if they didn’t exist, neither would the Pastor Protection Act. The name of Texas’ law banning gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act, proves our point. If the Defense of Marriage Act outlawed divorce, abandonment, opposite-sex marriage by closeted gays, or marrying someone for the money, at least its name would make sense.

Just to clarify: We aren’t recommending any of those. The reasons people marry aren’t our business, or government’s. It’s mystifying that people who got elected by being anti-government would decide otherwise once in office. But that’s exactly what they’ve done.

One openly gay member of the Legislature, Celia Israel, D-Austin, voted in favor of the Pastor Protection Act just to make the point that it is a meaningless clarification of pastors’ rights and to make clear that when she marries her same-sex partner - which she intends to do in Texas - the last person she’d allow to preside would be a clergy person opposed to it.

Amen to that.

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The Dallas Morning News. June 16, 2015.

The fragile foundation on which our justice system is built

In idyllic Dallas of the 1980s, with hard-nosed lawmen running the district attorney’s office, citizens thought they could trust that the good guys were making sure the bad guys got what was coming to them.

Then a wave of cases unraveled and began exposing how fragile and vulnerable to manipulation the justice system is.

The name Joyce Ann Brown became synonymous with prosecutorial misconduct at the Dallas County courthouse. It was suddenly clearer that the justice system might be swift, but it was not always sure or above-board.

Brown’s life sentence for an armed robbery conviction hinged on testimony from a jailhouse snitch with a history of lying to police. The snitch told jurors that Brown admitted the crime while the two were in jail awaiting trial; the star witness later got years shaved off her own prison sentence after a written recommendation from District Attorney Henry Wade.

Brown got caught up in the tragic mess because the car used in the robbery (in which a store owner was fatally shot) was rented by a woman who gave the same name. Brown’s photo then was picked out of a lineup by the store owner’s widow, in a mistaken eyewitness identification made a short time after the crime.

The DA’s office wanted to chalk up the nine-plus years Brown spent in prison as a big, regrettable oops. It was rather a rush to judgment compounded by a win-at-all-costs undercurrent in the DA’s office. Brown’s freedom was one casualty; another was that the real criminal was roaming free somewhere.

To Brown’s credit, she became well-known in Dallas and beyond through organizations to help the wrongly accused and ex-offenders trying to stay out of prison.

Brown, who died Saturday, was one of several people on Texas’ growing list of exonerees who have used their hard-won freedom to help improve the justice system. Another is Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, for the gruesome hammer-and-knife-slaying of six family members whose house was then set ablaze in Somerville, in Central Texas.

The state cut Graves a $1.4 million check four years ago as testimony that the case against him was a colossal miscarriage of justice. That followed a special prosecutor’s finding that the district attorney’s case against Graves was “a travesty.” Last week, the State Bar of Texas did one better and disbarred former DA Charles Sebesta for, among other things, eliciting false testimony from a witness at Graves’ trial.

That disbarment comes about 18 months after the disbarment of former Williamson County DA Ken Anderson, prosecutor in the infamous Michael Morton murder case.

The State Bar of Texas was right to take on these cases and strip disgraced attorneys of their ability to make a living in the profession. In some cases, disbarment may be too little punishment for a dishonest DA, but it at least sends a message that the bar will not give safe harbor to conniving members of the justice system.

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El Paso Times. June 15, 2015.

Border bill is win for politics over policy

As expected, politics has trumped policy as Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed an $800 million “border security” package that includes no real ability to define or measure success.

It was telling that Abbott signed the bill in Houston rather than, say, the Rio Grande Valley, the focal point of the state’s so-called border surge.

As we’ve said since Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry, started the surge last year, border security is a point of genuine concern that is often overwhelmed by political factors. Perry was responding to waves of families and children fleeing violence in Central America, who came to the South Texas border and immediately surrendered to border agents.

“In Texas, the most recent hype about the border really took off after media coverage of an influx of children fleeing violence in Central America, which was not accompanied by intelligence or data indicating an increase in criminal activity. It was a humanitarian issue, and border communities, not the state, rallied to the true need. The state sent the National Guard, and expanded DPS,” said state Sen. Jose Rodríguez of El Paso.

While Texas’ “ready, fire, aim” approach on border security plays well among many Republican primary voters, the border security bill and funding violate fundamental conservative tenets on fiscal responsibility.

Texas has yet to produce any data showing the results of its agents’ efforts since last summer. Instead, the state has put out statistics that show arrests, drug seizures and other results largely produced by federal agents - the same federal agents the state has repeatedly said aren’t doing the job of securing the border.

The state of Texas has embarked on an open-ended mission along the border with no real definition of what success will look like. If this was any issue other than border security, conservatives would rightfully object to spending $800 million without clearly defined metrics.

The legislation will allow the Department of Public Safety to hire 250 new state troopers to be assigned to the Mexican border, primarily in south Texas.

Many of those hires likely will come from local police and sheriff’s offices, especially in the border region, because of the need for bilingual, experienced law enforcement officers. That will strain local resources.

Republican leaders have longed criticized the Obama administration for failing to secure the border - even though Customs and Border Protection is now the nation’s largest law-enforcement agency, and even though apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have plunged over the past decade.

Any form of security is subject to improvement. But it’s still not clear how the addition of state troopers will enhance the very specialized mission of border security.

Signing the bill is undoubtedly good politics for Abbott. But it’s bad policy for Texas, and Texans will be paying the bill for years to come.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 10, 2015.

Border security needs clarity

We’ll call it a good thing that Texas is bolstering security along the Texas-Mexico border.

After all, the Lone Star State has long been vulnerable to illegal border crossings, some of which Gov. Greg Abbott says contribute to dangerous gang-related crime across the state.

House Bill 11, which Abbott signed into law last week, will add about $310 million to the state’s already massive border security effort. The law will accelerate hiring of 250 additional state police, provide more training and technology and improve tools available to prosecute human and drug smuggling.

Abbott declared border security a legislative emergency, and lawmakers were quick to act on a bill that satisfies many in the Republican Party base.

But some members raised valid questions about how Texas should measure the success of this effort. More bluntly, what exactly is the definition of border security?

Those questions remain unanswered.

Before the state spends more millions on what may be a worthwhile effort, Texans deserve a clear understanding of what policymakers intend to accomplish with all those taxpayer dollars.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. June 11, 2015.

New law makes ammonium nitrate explosions less likely but legislation should have been stronger

In a state where regulation is condemned in the name of liberty and safety ranks second to business prospects, the ammonium nitrate explosion of a fertilizer plant in the town of West in 2013 put state leaders in a quandary. If the devastation and lives lost weren’t enough to instill resolve, then surely the millions in taxpayer dollars required to rebuild West was a call to action.

After all, the explosion, in the opinion of many, resulted largely because of lax regulations and failed oversight.

During this year’s legislative session, bold suggestions were raised, including allowing the state fire marshal to craft rules for plants storing dangerous chemicals - you know, someone of the same stripe as those firefighters killed in the blast the night of April 17, 2013. To no one’s surprise, the idea left some in the agri-business industry quaking - which meant politicians had to jump to attention.

So what was signed into law last week by Gov. Greg Abbott? A decent enough bill that allows the state fire marshal to make safety inspections and requires companies storing or using chemicals to submit reports detailing chemical stockpiles to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as well as local fire departments. Reportedly, those reports will be available to the public - initially a sticking point, believe it or not.

State Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, who wrote the bill along with state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury - the town of West is in their legislative districts - tells the Trib this law will make the state safer: “I hope there’s not another fire at one of these facilities - we cannot prevent those - but a fire should not be catastrophic.”

Kacal is undoubtedly correct, though anyone who lost a loved one in West; saw his or her home destroyed; or contemplates the cost in terms of insurance and tax dollars must wonder if state leaders couldn’t have been bolder. For instance, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has repeatedly stressed how a mere sprinkler system could prevent explosions such as the one that claimed 15 lives in West, mostly first responders.

However, the fertilizer industry didn’t want to hear such talk, fearing prohibitive costs. So a bill by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, that would have given the state fire marshal rule-making authority for how chemicals such as ammonium nitrate are stored went nowhere.

While West Mayor Tommy Muska dutifully attended last week’s bill-signing ceremony for House Bill 942, we agree with his verdict: The bill could have been more preventive. Maybe the fertilizer industry can act on his suggestion that the product be manufactured differently, something done widely in Europe with calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizers.

The new law does introduce useful reforms, including keeping ammonium nitrate 30 feet or more from combustible material. Yet, disturbingly, our state leaders’ comments have been more focused on not offending industry with regulations than the importance of saving lives and property.

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