Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American Statesman. April 17, 2024.

Editorial: Texas AG Ken Paxton’s dangerous plan to expand his reach into local government

Prosecutors who don’t comply, or fail to prosecute certain crimes, could be removed from office

Dusting off a 39-year-old Texas code, Attorney General Ken Paxton has proposed a rule that stretches state government reach – to a stunning degree — onto the turf of district and county attorneys. The rule, which concluded a 30-day comment period last week, at first might sound harmless. Texas allows the Attorney General to require reports from district and county attorneys about criminal matters that are in the state’s interest. Paxton’s new interpretation of this code, as his office put it in a news release, is meant to boost transparency and accountability. Who can argue with that?

In fact, Paxton’s plan disguises an expansion of government power that is almost dizzying in its impact.

Under the proposed rule, district attorneys and county attorneys in counties with 250,000 people or more must submit entire case files, some with sensitive and confidential data, for an array of cases. Among these are cases involving indictment decisions about police officers, poll workers, and individuals claiming self-defense.

Paxton also gives bungee-level elasticity to the phrase “violent crime.” Under the new rule, the definition of violent crime is extended – but is not limited – to nonviolent offenses such as burglary, theft and automobile theft. “It’s a grotesque redefinition of violent crime to include nonviolent crime. Theft is associated with young people and the unhoused. It’s what you arrest kids for on the corner to teach them a lesson,” Kathy Mitchell, a senior advisor to the nonprofit Equity Action, told the editorial board. Counting these offenses as violent crimes, Mitchell said, will make for eye-popping statistics – which Paxton then can handily blame on DAs.

Some parts of the rule are so precise they seem tailored to specific events. For example, the mandate to hand over all files related to poll workers may be a response to Paxton’s unsuccessful investigations of poll workers. There’s also a requirement for files from all cases for which the governor has publicly considered a pardon – apparently a reference to Daniel Perry, convicted in 2023 for murdering a Black Lives Matter protester. Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to pardon him.

But the most concerning part of Paxton’s rule is how unspecific it is. Redefining crime and demanding huge data chunks are not ends in themselves. They are tentacles that can grow, reaching deep into Texas daily life.

Prosecutors like Travis DA Jose Garza could be the first targets

The first targets will be big-city prosecutors. Paxton and fellow Republicans have been blunt about their disdain for these elected officials, with Travis County District Attorney José Garza squarely in their sights. Defying GOP policy, Garza ran in 2020 with a platform including marijuana decriminalization, and pledged not to prosecute abortion-related crimes after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

But Paxton’s rule will create other victims as well: the voters that elected these prosecutors to enact their communal priorities or sit on grand juries. These heavily Democratic areas chose officials who would focus on crimes they really worry about –murder, assault, sexual violence.

In a state where big government once was detested, Paxton’s new rule is head-spinning. It’s also dangerous – considering where he might intrude next. Could abortion one day be classified as a violent crime? Will rape survivors report these crimes if their medical files will now circulate in state government?

A potential for Ken Paxton to expand his ‘pet partisan projects’

“Ken Paxton’s proposed administrative rule for prosecutors grossly expands any concept of “violent crime,” allowing him to later include his pet partisan projects – attacks on the families of trans kids, migrants, election workers or doctors – at the expense of actual crime victims and the justice system itself,” wrote a coalition of legal activists that includes Equity Action, The Texas Civil Rights Project, Austin Community Law Center and AVOW.

In principle, Paxton has something right. Texas law enforcement should be more transparent. Gathering more data – and sharing it – could answer key questions that could modernize our legal system.

There is currently no strong database, for example, that tracks how certain crimes are prosecuted from county to county. What can we learn about charging disparities based on gender, disability, and economic status? What conditions of drug treatment may push some offenders to choose jail time instead?

Pointed questions, it turns out, could also slow Paxton’s push to impose his legal agenda. According to state procedure, his office must hold a hearing and respond to substantive comments. For the sake of transparency, Paxton should publicize this hearing far and wide. In the name of independence, Texans deserve the chance to stand up to an ever-encroaching state government.


Houston Chronicle. April 17, 2024.

Editorial: Death Row inmate Melissa Lucio should be free

Hours after Melissa Lucio’s 2-year-old daughter Mariah Alvarez fell asleep and never woke up from her nap in February 2007, an investigator with Child Protective Services interviewed some of her other children.

Had her mother ever hit them?

No, one daughter said, she only spanked them sometimes but never Mariah. Her 9-year-old and 12-year-old daughters agreed: she never hit any of them. So what explained the extensive bruising on her tiny body and the blunt force trauma that ultimately killed her? Bobby, Lucio’s 7-year-old son, offered another explanation: two days earlier, he saw his little sister fall down the rickety outdoor wooden stairs of the second-story Brownsville apartment they had just moved out of. Several of her other children mentioned the fall. Daniella, then 20, also told law enforcement that Mariah’s health had been declining in the two days since the fall. She was having trouble breathing and was sleeping more than usual. These troubling signs of a medical condition caused by a blood coagulation disorder could have supported the defense’s argument that Mariah’s death was accidental and not, as the prosecution argued, the result of severe abuse.

But the jury that sentenced Lucio to death in 2008 for capital murder never heard any of it. While the details of these interviews made it to the prosecution, the full story never made its way to Lucio’s defense team, a serious violation of due process.

Thanks to this revelation, there’s now a mounting effort to overturn her conviction and free Lucio after 17 years in prison for a crime her attorneys, the district attorney and even the district judge who first tried the case agree, she probably shouldn’t have been convicted of.

Lucio’s case has been in the spotlight since at least 2022 when a bipartisan effort among Texas legislators helped it get a serious second look. There were concerning missteps. The jury, for example, didn’t hear why, after nearly five hours of coercive interrogation from a Texas Ranger, Lucio would so adamantly maintain her innocence before finally relenting with a confession of sorts.

An expert was prepared to testify that, as a victim of abuse herself, Lucio’s seeming acquiescence to a dominating male figure was not a reflection of guilt. But the judge decided the expert could not testify. Instead, the jury heard Ranger Victor Escalon Jr., tell them that he knew she was guilty because of the way she avoided eye contact and slumped her shoulders. Years later, that same ranger would find himself fumbling to explain law enforcement’s slow response to the deadly school shooting in Uvalde. The district attorney, for his part, was later convicted of bribery and extortion.

The outcry as Lucio’s execution approached was loud enough to halt it just two days before it was scheduled. But Lucio remains on death row.

Now, there’s a chance she could win back her freedom.

In a 33-page filing submitted in January 2023, the current Cameron County district attorney and Lucio’s defense team presented their findings that exculpatory evidence was withheld not just from the jury but from Lucio’s own lawyers. Last Friday, the district court judge who first heard the case agreed, urging the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to overturn the murder conviction and death sentence.

Again, Lucio’s family must wait to see what the court decides.

“It’s been 17 years that we have been without her. We love her and miss her and can’t wait to hug her,” several of Lucio’s children wrote in a joint statement.

In 2022, we wrote that the question of Lucio’s innocence was harder to determine than the question of whether she received a fair trial. We were troubled, for example, that she did not seek medical care for her ailing child. For the same failure, Mariah’s father was sentenced to only four years in prison. It is even clearer now that had the jury been able to hear all the evidence, they likely would not have convicted Lucio of murder. It is, as University of Texas law professor Jordan Steiker told the Texas Tribune, “exceptionally rare” to have this level of agreement about prosecutorial misconduct.

Lucio’s case certainly is exceptional for the attention it’s received. We worry it’s not all that exceptional for the missteps that helped put it in the spotlight. The Court of Criminal Appeals, though, has the chance, once again, to stand for justice and due process and provide relief to a woman and her family who, for nearly two decades have had to mourn not just the loss of a precious child but their mother, too.


AIM Media Texas. April 16, 2024.

Editorial: STC tuition program helps make higher education affordable for more students

South Texas College has announced a tuition assistance program that officials say should make enrollment there essentially tuition free for all students. Such a program can help many Rio Grande Valley residents attain academic degrees or professional training and certification they might not be able to afford otherwise.

Officials from STC and local government, business and social organizations recently held a public event to launch the Valley Promise program for Hidalgo and Starr county students. It’s intended to cover tuition and fees, allowing students to attend the college without those direct costs. It is an endowed program, funded by foundations and community groups that have invested more than $1 million to help cover any tuition and fees that remain after scholarships and other traditional financial aid allotments have been applied.

The program is scheduled to begin next year and students are asked to sign a pledge committing to the college during their senior year in high school. STC officials expect 500 students to participate in the program initially, and expand as more students and schools sign on.

It’s no secret that the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, much faster than the rate of inflation overall. Community colleges such as STC aren’t immune to such cost increases, even as they offer a much more affordable resource compared to four-year universities. That lower cost, however, helps the college provide this kind of tuition assistance program with much less funding from the contributing agencies and foundations.

Even with that reduced cost, many students in low-income areas such as our Valley still find it difficult to afford higher education, or the professional training and certification programs that help many people pursue better careers in areas beyond traditional liberal arts and four-year degree programs. Community colleges are known for helping people qualify for jobs in countless disciplines ranging from air-conditioning and mechanics to nursing and office careers, normally within two years. Many students also use the colleges as a more affordable way to earn credits for core degree courses such as English and math during their first two years of matriculation before transferring to four-year universities, although STC also offers bachelor’s degrees in some nursing, business and computer technology disciplines.

Professional training programs make community colleges a vital part of a community’s social and economic development. They help build a better educated workforce and often establish training cooperative agreements with local businesses that help provide skilled workers those businesses need. Such an asset can help attract new businesses looking for a home where such workers and programs are available.

STC, and the organizations that have signed on as benefactors, deserve our gratitude for making an investment that can pay off greatly by helping more students build better lives, and local businesses to find better workers. Success in this endeavor could offer a blueprint that other institutions can use to help more students defray the ever-rising cost of achieving higher education or job skills.