Longview News-Journal. Nov. 27, 2013.
Flap over curriculum is political pandering
If it's true that parents in Spring Hill ISD oppose the curriculum being used in their schools, they have a local means to address it.
We don't believe meddling from the state's lieutenant governor is appropriate, however. And David Dewhurst's recent campaign trail threat to "call out" Spring Hill ISD's superintendent over the curriculum being used in that Longview district amounted to little more than political pandering.
Dewhurst made headlines this month when, in response to a question from a parent at a Gregg County forum, he said he'd write a letter to "embarrass" Superintendent Wes Jones over the district's curriculum. Spring Hill is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of a law regarding curriculum passed in the last legislative session, Dewhurst claimed, and he intended to do something about it in Austin.
Well, for one thing, it's not at all clear the district is violating any law. In fact, several hundred districts across the state have adopted the same approach in the aftermath of a politically motivated firefight in the past year over curriculum.
The entire issue arose, we believe, mainly because one of Dewhurst's opponents was looking for a red-meat campaign issue. That opponent, state Sen. Dan Patrick, found his issue in CSCOPE, a curriculum tool that was being used in nearly 900 districts statewide, including about two dozen in East Texas. He whipped it to a fever pitch mainly by asserting lesson plans being used by some districts within the CSCOPE structure were inappropriate, and that meant the entire structure had to go.
It was a false argument, but one that gained traction. Patrick eventually claimed CSCOPE was gone — but it wasn't. The fracas led to a new state law calling for local public input on major curriculum initiatives.
So, faced with an opportunity to out-CSCOPE his opponents while campaigning in Gregg County, Dewhurst couldn't say no. He laid into Spring Hill and Jones.
That was a shame.
Beyond questions over curriculum, we believe it's inappropriate for state officials to be meddling in local school district affairs.
If it's true, as the parent who raised the question claims, that most Spring Hill patrons disagree with the district's practice, they should continue to address their concerns to the school board. Then, the locally elected board and the professional educators it hires should make the decisions. Why should it be taken to the lieutenant governor, or the Legislature?
If politicians on the campaign trail were truly the conservatives they claim to be, they'd understand that. So thanks for the input, lieutenant governor, but we've got this under control.
San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 2, 2013.
Guard decision rooted in fairness
Whether it was result of federal pressure, a Texas epiphany about fairness or a combination, a decision to let same-sex couples register for benefits in the Texas National Guard is a milestone.
Last week, the Texas Guard announced that five of its facilities will begin enrolling same-sex dependent spouses in programs.
Texas had been among the states resisting this after the Pentagon allowed these benefits. Texas made couples travel to federal installations to register. The states resisted even after the Defense Secretary ordered state Guards to comply. Georgia and Louisiana remain as hold-outs.
Gov. Rick Perry and others had insisted that the state's ban on gay marriages and other factors exempted the Texas National Guard.
This, of course, failed to recognize that Guard members who defend their country should have the same rights as all other soldiers, sailors and airmen.
It appears that Texas' leaders are finding a way to live with this decision. If so, this also is a milestone.
But another question looms. Explicit in this is that all service members — Guard or regular Army, Navy and Air Force — are equal.
The Supreme Court, in undoing the Defense of Marriage Act, has said gay couples are entitled to federal benefits — as equal, if you will, as heterosexual couples.
There is no more basic right than the right to marry.
If heterosexual couples everywhere and gay couples in some states enjoy this, shouldn't gay couples everywhere be entitled?
The answer is as obvious as bans on gay marriage are unfair.
The Dallas Morning News. Nov. 30, 2013.
Conservatives vs. the death penalty
Opposition to the death penalty is not just the province of the political left.
This year has seen the emergence of a new national group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which has been assembling a network of like-minded activists since its debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md. This month, the conservative group announced a partnership with a Ron Paul-inspired, campus-centered organization, the Young Americans for Liberty.
The driving principles are capital punishment's incompatibility with the conservative ideals of restraining government, protecting life and maintaining fiscal responsibility.
The political right has teamed up with the left to push "smart on crime" reforms in sentencing and incarceration, among other issues. From the standpoint of this newspaper and our opposition to the death penalty, that same political axis could be key to making further inroads as more states consider joining the 18 that have already abolished the practice.
Texas, it is clear, is a stronghold of death-penalty support. A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll this fall showed 74 percent of Texans in favor — about 14 points above national support expressed to a similar death-penalty question in a Gallup Poll last month.
The Texas poll showed that about 13 percent of the registered voters who opposed the death penalty identified themselves as conservatives.
One such Texan is criminal defense attorney Pat Monks of Houston, a Republican precinct chairman in Harris County. Monks said he once was a fervent supporter of capital punishment, a position that hardened after a friend was murdered. He said he would attend social justice seminars to press his point, once even heckling noted capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean, who came to speak.
Ultimately, Monks said, the futility of seeking justice through the death chamber hit home to him. The impossibility of eradicating human error from the system hit home to him.
Monks said he came to see no deterrent value for a punishment that's imposed unevenly at an intolerable expense to the public. Monks asserts that a more suitable punishment is sending a killer to a "4-by-8 cell, 23 hours a day for the rest of his life."
Monks joined the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; he says he's one of three conservative board members. This year, he was asked to help staff the booth that the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty set up at the Maryland CPAC convention.
It was a surprise, Monks said, to see how many conservative activists at the convention stopped by to discuss the death penalty. "People would come up and say, 'Man, I'm with you on that.'"
That's not where most Texans are, not by a long shot. Most hold the same pro-death-penalty position Monks once held. We hope more will do the inquiry he did and have that same transformation.
San Angelo Standard-Times. Dec. 2, 2013.
Congress free from threat of overwork
The headline on the Congress-watching newspaper Politico said it all: "Done."
The subhead expanded on the assertion, but there wasn't much to add: "Congress is through legislating for the rest of 2013." And that was mid-month, even before the lawmakers knocked off for a 10-day Thanksgiving recess.
House Speaker John Boehner said the House shouldn't even remain in session in December. He was joking — we think.
As it is, the House, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor's schedule, is to be in session only eight days in December and go home Dec. 13. This is no accident; the schedule was made out in January. The Senate doesn't have a strict schedule but generally sticks close to the relaxed pace of the House.
The immigration bill is not likely to pass in December, and neither is the farm bill. The 12 appropriations bills that fund the operations of the government and were supposed to have been passed by Sept. 30 haven't been passed. Meanwhile, Congress will resort to continuing resolutions as a fancy way of, as they say on Capitol Hill, kicking the can down the road.
Dealing with the "sequester," the automatic, across-the board budget cuts Congress passed in a vain attempt to galvanize itself into action, will have to wait until next year; in the meantime, it's beginning to do real damage to critical government operations such as defense.
The House spent much of the year occupied with pointless trivia, such as repeated and fruitless attempts to repeal "Obamacare." Now it has found a new distraction, beating up on the White House for the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
The Republicans had better hurry. The act is starting to work, especially in those states that opted to administer the law themselves.
Thanks to Senate Republicans needlessly blocking President Barack Obama's judicial nominees, Senate Democrats changed the rules to allow the nominees' approval by 51 votes instead of 60.
Thus, the major legislative trophy the Senate will have for the year end is filling three seats on the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Winston Churchill said democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. He was right, of course, but sometimes you can't help wondering.
Austin American-Statesman. Nov. 28, 2013.
Texas needs judicial reform
The partisan election of judges is one of the more negative facets of state government, and for decades there have been attempts to change Texas' judicial election system. We long have supported efforts to take party politics out of judicial elections and to reduce the effect of campaign money on the state's courts.
But like the occasional struggle to revise or rewrite the clunky and heavily amended Texas Constitution, attempts to change the state's judicial selection process always have proved futile. The reform effort flares then fades away in defeat — only to re-emerge a few years later because the need for reform is so obvious. It can't help but reassert itself.
Perhaps the nth time is the charm. As the American-Statesman reported last week, another attempt to reform the state's judicial election system is about to be launched. Legislators plan to assemble a special bipartisan committee consisting of six Republicans and six Democrats to study how best to select impartial judges. The panel will recommend changes for lawmakers to consider during the next legislative session, which begins in January 2015. We wish the committee luck.
Campaigns are expensive, and judges must seek contributions to run for office. Naturally their major donors tend to be lawyers, businesses and corporations — people and entities that often appear in court before them. It is a system flush with potential conflicts of interest. Thus it also is a system that harms the public's confidence in justice and judges alike.
Texans whose time in the state dates back more than a few months or years can recall the stinging embarrassment generated by a 1987 "60 Minutes" segment about Texas' system of electing judges. Titled "Justice for Sale," the segment found that trial lawyers who raised millions of dollars for judges won two-thirds of their cases before the state Supreme Court. The news program revisited the issue in 1998, after Republicans had gained control of the court, and found that businesses and corporations won most of the time 11 years later. Opposite result, but same story: Money influenced justice.
Minor tweaks have been made to the system over the years, but its partisan nature and fund-raising demands remain its essential problem. Corruption is not the only risk, however. There also is always the risk — occasionally fully realized — of electing mediocre or unqualified judges, because when judicial elections are partisan, a candidate's party affiliation can outweigh his or her judicial qualifications and record.
Texas is one of only a handful of states that hold partisan judicial elections. Several potential reforms have been explored over the years, and we undoubtedly will see a few of them again as part of this new effort. A perennial and favored proposal is to appoint judges based on merit and then to require them to go before voters a few years later in a nonpartisan, yes-or-no retention election. A new appointed judge would replace a judge whom voters reject, and the process would repeat itself.
The past three chief justices of the Texas Supreme Court favored reform, as the American-Statesman noted in its report. Wallace Jefferson, who resigned as chief justice Oct. 1 to re-enter private law practice, frequently spoke in support of an appointment-retention system.
Talk of changing the judicial election system has never resulted in change. Potential reforms are complicated solutions involving many parts and lots of movement — nomination commissions, gubernatorial or legislative appointments, nonpartisan retention elections. And changing the way Texans elect judges would require a constitutional amendment that needs approval by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate. The state's Democratic and Republican parties and the lawyers and businesses that contribute to lawmakers' campaigns benefit from the status quo. They oppose changing the system, and their opposition carries weight.
A constitutional amendment also would need the approval of a majority of voters. The structure of the state courts system might be a mystery to many voters and judicial candidates complete unknowns, but Texans have been electing judges since the 1870s, and that's a power not easily abandoned.
Every system has its imperfections, but no system is as unfavorable to justice as the partisan election of judges. Texas finally should move toward a nonpartisan system that lessens the influence of money and promotes merit above party politics.