Posted: Sep 11, 2012 11:01 AM
Updated: Sep 11, 2012 11:02 AM
San Angelo Standard-Times. Sept. 6, 2012.
Will lawmakers learn lessons from court decisions
The fallout from last year's colossal redistricting flop continues.
Last week a federal court in Washington, D.C., delivered an outcome that should have been obvious to Republican lawmakers as soon as they wrapped up their handiwork in the spring of 2011 the judges said the way the Legislature drew congressional districts discriminated against minorities.
Texas gained four U.S. House seats in the next Congress because of its growth over the last decade. Hispanics accounted for 65 percent of that growth and blacks 13.4 percent, yet the Legislature crafted new districts in such a way that minority candidates were unlikely to benefit.
The judges further said the lines drawn by legislators removed the "economic guts" from congressional districts represented by blacks.
The decision apparently (the qualifier is necessary because confusion and uncertainty has marked the process since the start) won't affect November's elections. Candidates are running in districts crafted by another federal court after judges derailed the Legislature's remap, which is the one skewered in last week's ruling.
Two days after the redistricting decision, another panel of federal judges blocked Texas' voter ID law, saying that it would impose "strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor," who are disproportionately black and Hispanic.
Both decisions were unanimous, and three of the six judges were appointed by George W. Bush.
It is against this backdrop that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott seeks to have Texas removed from the constraints of the Voting Rights Act. That law passed in 1965 and reauthorized in 2006 with broad bipartisan support requires Texas and 13 other mostly Southern states to get preclearance for any change in the way elections are carried out.
Maybe most unsettling about the redistricting decision is that it means we'll probably have to go through it again next year.
Considering that courts have been cleaning up the remapping mess made by lawmakers of both parties since the 1970s, that's hardly an uplifting prospect.
The best thing that could happen is for the Legislature to turn redistricting over to an independent commission. Partisan motives never can be completely scrubbed from the process, but at least they can be greatly diminished if lawmakers aren't directly involved.
Texans would be more likely to live in districts drawn with their interests and needs in mind rather than the politicians'.
That's less likely to happen now that the chief proponent, Republican state Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, who previously represented part of San Angelo, lost his primary race. In the current political environment, where even blatant discriminatory tactics are used to gain partisan advantage, it's doubtful anyone will pick up his torch.
The goal should be for Texans, not federal judges in Washington, to determine how Texas elections will be held. If politicians stop trying to diminish voting opportunities for black and Hispanic Texans, maybe we'll get there.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sept. 9, 2012.
Stricter voter-registration rules still not justified
A curious thing happened at arguments Thursday over Texas rules that a voter-registration group says interfere with free-speech rights.
The state has implemented restrictions aimed at preventing volunteer registrars from signing up phony voters. But arguments Thursday suddenly shifted to nogoodniks who might take in voter registration forms but not turn them in to county officials.
When Judge Catharina Haynes took that tangent during a lively session before a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell ran with it: "We're trying to protect the voting rights of people who trust these organizations" to deliver their completed paperwork, he argued.
Texas officials mostly have claimed that they need to guard against fraud by groups like ACORN, the now-defunct organization whose worst actions occurred in other states several years back and involved phony registrations.
But Voting for America, which conducts voter-registration drives around the country, argues that Texas' restrictions are an unjustified intrusion into its ability to engage citizens in the political process. Among other things, the state bars non-Texans from registering voters, allows only approved individuals to accept completed registration forms and requires volunteer registrars to be deputized by every county in which they plan to work.
U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa in August granted Voting for America's request to suspend the restrictions while the court challenge proceeds. But the appellate court said in a brief order Thursday that the restrictions could be used this year. The vote was 2-1; the panel didn't outline its reasoning.
But the arguments showed a split panel.
Judge James Dennis, who dissented from the ruling, said the restrictions affect "core political activity" and the state hadn't shown it would be irreparably harmed if they weren't in effect for the November elections. At one point, he scolded Mitchell: "ACORN is not involved in this case. Why do you keep bringing it up?"
Haynes, on the other hand, talked about "unsavory people" signing up voters, deliberately losing their forms and not being held accountable -- although a separate state law imposes a penalty for not promptly turning in forms. She said federal courts are "not supposed to lightly pre-empt state laws."
Perhaps the oddest part of the discussion came when Mitchell said the state doesn't have to point to a specific example of fraud to restrict voter-registration drives.
That's wrong. So is letting the state move forward without that proof, when the rules could limit citizens' political participation. That's where the real potential for irreparable harm arises.
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Sept. 5, 2012.
Rick Perry's record time served as Texas governor is enough
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's future plans either are undecided or known only to him, but there's a lot of speculation he's planning on another run for governor in two years and possibly considering a second try for the Republican presidential nomination in four years.
We hope neither of those speculations becomes a reality.
He has been the governor of Texas since December 2000, when George W. Bush resigned to become the president and Perry, as lieutenant governor, succeeded him.
He was elected to four-year gubernatorial terms in 2002, 2006 and 2010. His almost 12 years in the state's highest office has earned him the longest-serving tenure of any Texas governor in history.
He had previously won three other statewide races in Texas the one for lieutenant governor and two for agriculture commissioner. But he discovered, during a stumbling run for the Republican presidential nomination, national political experiences didn't go nearly as well for him as those within the friendly confines of the Lone Star State.
Can he really be considering another run for president, given the gaffes and roughing up he experienced in his first time around?
Quite possibly, yes. The governor is nothing if not confident. We can visualize his thinking about how much he learned the first time out of the gate and how he will be much better prepared for his second presidential rodeo.
During his long tenure as governor, Perry has appointed thousands of people to state agencies and commissions and to the boards of regents of public universities. During his first 10 years, he appointed almost 4,000 people.
About one-fourth of those appointees later contributed money toward his re-election campaigns.
Mark Miner, spokesman for Perry's 2010 re-election campaign, said Perry makes his appointments based on qualifications, not future contributions.
Appointments based on qualifications sounds very nice, but we have seen the kind of loyalty the governor expects, based on the experiences of two Lubbock people on the Texas Tech board of regents.
Former Lubbock Mayor Windy Sitton and former Lubbock Independent School District board member Mark Griffin both said they felt pressure from the governor's office after they supported Kay Bailey Hutchison, who ran against Perry in the Republican primary in 2010.
Sitton said she was told to stop supporting Hutchinson or resign from the board. Griffin said the governor's former chief of staff told him the governor was not going to ask him to step down but would accept his resignation if he did.
By the time Gov. Perry has finished his third full term as governor, he will have served more than 14 years as Texas governor. We consider that a long enough time to spend in the gubernatorial saddle.
We don't know his future plans, but if he is considering running for governor again, we hope he will not.
Houston Chronicle. Sept. 6, 2012.
Chemical plants are still too vulnerable
More than a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman recently wrote in the New York Times, "a major flaw in our national security remains, leaving millions of Americans at risk."
Whitman, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, should know. She was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the al-Qaida attack and during the unnerving months afterward as the U.S. assessed its vulnerability to terrorists. As she wrote, "I knew what could happen, if a terrorist were to target a chlorine gas facility, to the hundreds of thousands of people living downwind."
In the Houston area, we're particularly vulnerable to such attacks. In 2008, the Center for American Progress used EPA data to compile a list of the country's 101 most dangerous chemical facilities. Our area had 21.
After 9/11, the EPA considered using its existing authority to reduce chemical facilities' vulnerability. Because the Clean Air Act requires facilities handling the most toxic chemicals to prevent catastrophic releases in the event of an attack, the agency could require plants to switch to safer processes and chemicals alternatives that are cost-effective and widely available. Instead, the EPA waited for new legislation.
That, Whitman thinks, was a mistake. All these years later, she writes, "Congress is hopelessly gridlocked on extending the inadequate homeland security appropriations statute that currently regulates the industry."
That's alarming. Al-Qaida and its spawn aren't the only ones who might eye those facilities with interest. Mass murders committed by the insane occupy too many of our news pages. And computer hackers ranging from those controlled by China's military to teenagers out for the Internet equivalent of a joyride are wreaking ever more havoc from a distance.
The good news, though, is that the EPA still has the authority to take action. We agree with Whitman: Reducing our vulnerability isn't about politics. It's about public safety.
Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 6, 2012.
Solitary confinement reform needed
Texas prison officials call it "administrative segregation." You know it as solitary confinement.
The state has implemented innovative treatment and rehabilitation programs in recent years, and some of those programs have served as a model for criminal justice reforms in other states.
But when it comes to keeping inmates in indefinite isolation, Texas remains stuck in a get-tough past.
According to state figures, 8,144 inmates are isolated from the general prison population.
The good news is, this number is a decrease from the 8,701 inmates held in solitary in 2010, which itself was a decrease from the 9,752 inmates held in isolation in 2005. Texas is at least moving in the right direction when it comes to numbers of inmates in solitary confinement.
Yet, for all those administratively segregated inmates, the state offers precious few programs to help them prepare for life outside prison. As the American-Statesman reported, last year 878 convicts were released straight from solitary confinement to the streets.
The fact that hundreds of convicts deemed by prison officials to be too dangerous for the general prison population are going from solitary to release, Ward reported, seemed to stun members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee during a hearing Tuesday at the Capitol.
The state senators called on prison officials to develop programs for inmates in solitary.
"Why not give them some life-skills or some faith-based programs or something that can prepare them for when they get out, rather than just turning them loose," state Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, asked prison officials.
Inmates in solitary confinement typically spend 23 hours of each day in their cells. They are let out for an hour to exercise and shower.
A Texas inmate shipped off to solitary can find himself in isolation for an indefinite stay. The average is 3.2 years. Some inmates are locked away alone for a decade or more.
Texas prison officials said that most Texas inmates kept segregated from the general inmate population about 60 percent are gang members, Ward reported.
No doubt there is a small group of inmates who truly need to be separated from the general prison population, but the experience elsewhere, according to various reports, is that most inmates in solitary confinement are there for relatively minor reasons. They are not among "the worst of the worst" the common assumption regarding prisoners in solitary confinement and do not need to be kept isolated for sustained periods of time.
Managing a prison population is no easy task an understatement, we realize and the safety of guards, counselors and other inmates must be a priority.
But solitary confinement is often psychologically damaging. It can make violent criminals more violent, more anti-social.
Inmates in isolation suffer symptoms ranging from an inability to concentrate to depression to hallucinations. To prison psychiatrists, these are symptoms of SHU syndrome, the SHU standing for Security Housing Units.
As a result, some states are changing their solitary confinement policies. One potential model of reform comes from one of the least expected places Mississippi.
As The New York Times reported in March, Mississippi began changing its treatment of prisoners in solitary following a 2007 outbreak of violence in one of its maximum security units. Rather than cracking down on the violence, state officials began looking for new ways to approach the problems they were having in their isolation units.
A few years later, the main lesson learned appears to be this: "If you treat people like animals, that's exactly the way they'll behave," Christopher Epps, Mississippi's commissioner of corrections, told The Times.
Mississippi officials began letting segregated inmates spend more hours outside their cells.
They allowed some group interaction, and they gave inmates in solitary privileges as certain behavioral goals were met.
Violence dropped and the number of prisoners kept in isolation went down 70 percent.
The state was able to close one maximum security unit. Millions of dollars have been saved.
Mississippi's reforms are worth study and consideration. Letting inmates fester in isolation with no expectations but to sit and rot benefits no one.
Texas prisoners up for release need treatment and educational programs to help them make the transition from life in prison to life outside. After all, reform is a matter of public safety.