WEEK IN REVIEW
Senators Announce Bill to Overhaul Indigent Criminal Defense System
AUSTIN - Three senators announced the Texas Fair Defense Act on Wednesday, a bill with five other Republican and Democratic co-authors that would overhaul the indigent criminal defense system in Texas.
"The harsh reality is that poor defendants get a poor defense in Texas," said Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the bill's co-authors. "Over the past two years, we have gathered more and more evidence that the system needs to be reformed. The Texas Fair Defense Act is a moderate step toward ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system."
The Texas Fair Defense Act has been filed as Senate Bill (SB) 7.
"When George Bush was being sworn in (in January), I presided over an execution," said Arlington Sen. Chris Harris, a co-author of SB 7. "During that 32 minutes, I had a lot of time to think. I did a lot of soul searching."
As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Harris fulfills the duties of the governor when the governor and lieutenant governor are out of the state.
"I voted for every law and order bill that's come through the legislature in the time I've been here. And I will continue to do that. I have voted to uphold the death penalty every time it's come up," Harris said. "But I want to be sure that any defendant that we in this state are going to put to death, or that we are going to sentence for a major felony, which follows them for the rest of their lives, and a prison term, was given adequate representation."
Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, another co-author of the bill, said SB 7 is important if Texas is to have a fair system of criminal justice.
"The integrity of our entire criminal justice system is at risk when adequate legal representation of indigent defendants is in question," Duncan said. "This bill is a step to ensure that all persons, regardless of economic status, are equally represented under the law."
Ellis said SB 7 focuses on four critical issues, timely appointment of counsel, the method of counsel appointment by courts, the reporting of information about indigent representation services and minimum standards for counsel. The bill also proposes to create an Appointed Counsel Assistance Program to assist attorneys appointed to serious felony and capital cases.
Other co-authors of SB 7 are Victoria Sen. Ken Armbrister, Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Dallas Sen. David Cain, Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan and Houston Sen. John Whitmire. Armbrister chairs the Criminal Justice Committee which will hear the bill.
Texas ranks 49th in the United States in per-capita spending on indigent criminal defense and is one of only four states that contribute no public funding to indigent defense.
SB 7 is the product of almost two years' work between legislators, the State Bar, district judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and reform groups, Ellis said.
Ellis authored similar legislation in 1999. That bill, SB 247, was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Texas Legislature before being vetoed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
"The Texas Fair Defense Act has broad bipartisan support in both chambers of the legislature and is clearly one of the top priorities this session," Ellis said.
On Tuesday, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips addressed a joint meeting to the Senate Jurisprudence Committee and the House Civil Practices and Judicial Affairs Committees. Phillips gave his regular State of the Judiciary Address. Phillips concentrated on four issues: representation for indigent defendants in criminal cases, legal assistance to the poor in civil cases, foster care and adoption and "the urgent need to improve the way we select judges."
Ellis, a member of the Jurisprudence Committee, urged more action on the issue of indigent legal defense.
"I would just encourage you and other judges in the room, distinguished members of the Texas judiciary, to show some leadership on helping to resolve the problem (of providing defense to indigent defendants), and not just sit on the sidelines and take shots at other proposals that come up," Ellis said to Phillips.
"It's my sense that the judges want to do that (take a leadership role)," Phillips replied.
Texas Capitol Becomes a Schoolhouse
Schoolchildren and teachers from across the state were at the Capitol on Thursday for the 2001 Texas Capitol Schoolhouse.
The Texas Capitol Schoolhouse is a biennial event where schools demonstrate how they are using technology in the classroom.
"I sponsored the first Capitol Schoolhouse eight years ago to help educate the legislature on the importance of teaching students how to become familiar and comfortable with technology," said Barrientos, one of the event's sponsors. "The advances students and teachers have made since then are amazing -- these kids can run circles around many adults when it comes to technology."
The students, ranging from elementary to high school, gathered in the Capitol Ground Floor Rotunda to show some of the high-tech projects they are working on in their classrooms. Some of the students used the Internet to gather information for computer slide shows. Other students used computers to design bridges. Another group was using a combination online and field study program to learn about Texas waterways.
"As Will, my 11-year-old, says, this is way cool," said Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and one of the event's sponsors.
Nelda Laney, the wife of another sponsor, Texas House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, also played an important role in the event.
"I like the situation that I find myself in here this morning, which is being your Official Schoolhouse Mom," Mrs. Laney said. "I like that. I'm a mom. I'm an old retired schoolteacher. So I guess it fits -- old mom, old schoolteacher. So I'm honored to be your Schoolhouse Mom."
Other Capitol sponsors were Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, Ellis and State Rep. Paul Sadler of Henderson.
The Texas Capitol School continued Friday, closing with an awards ceremony at 11:30 a.m.
For another report on the event, please see the Texas SenateKids news page at http://www.senate.state.tx.us/Kids/kidsnews.htm.
Task Force on Uninsured Presents Report
On Thursday, Harris briefed media on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Uninsured Report to the 77th Legislature. Harris chaired the panel, which was charged during the 76th interim with studying the problem of Texans without health insurance.
Other members of the task force included Beaumont Sen. David Bernsen, El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Craig Eiland and then-State Rep. Bob Glaze. Then-Gov. George W. Bush also appointed three citizen members to the panel, Mary Wilson Dickey of College Station, John C. Goodman of Dallas and Boone Powell of Dallas.
"In any given month in Texas, right now today, we have a minimum of one out of four Texans who have no form of insurance coverage," Harris said.
Among the task force's recommendations were simpler enrollment and qualifying procedures for state-subsidized insurance and Medicaid and an overall more organized approach to using state resources to get more Texans covered by health insurance.
Senate Votes to Approve Child Testimony Legislation
The Texas Senate approved a bill on Tuesday that would allow a witness who is younger than 13 years old to testify in a criminal case outside the presence of the defendant.
Current Texas law has no provision to allow a child witness to give testimony anywhere but in the courtroom in the presence of the accused.
Shapiro, the sponsor of Committee Substitute Senate Bill (CSSB) 24, said it will allow children to testify in cases where they might feel threatened by being in the presence of someone they saw commit a crime. The bill applies in serious felony cases including capital murder.
The Senate passed the bill with 29 yes votes, although Dallas Sen. Royce West voiced concerns in floor debate about a jury in a serious case not being able to see a witness testify in person.
Bill Would Make Prescriptions More Affordable for Seniors
Duncan announced a bill on Wednesday designed to make prescription drugs more affordable for senior citizens by allowing them to pay Medicaid-based prices. SB 556 would direct pharmacies that participate in Medicaid Vendor Drug Program to fill Medicare recipients' prescriptions at the Medicaid cost plus a 5-cent administrative fee. Persons age 65 and older are automatically eligible for Medicare.
Fort Worth Sen. Mike Moncrief joined Duncan in announcing SB 556. The bill has been referred to the Health and Human Services Committee Moncrief chairs. The American Association of Retired Persons and the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature have endorsed the bill.
Bivins Bill Focuses on Dropout Statisics
Bivins announced on Monday that he would file legislation dealing with increasing the accuracy of dropout reporting by school districts. Bivins, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the measure, SB 646, incorporates the committee's recommendations made following an interim study.
SB 646 proposes to add completion rates of high school students to the measures used in the state's accountability system. Completion rates measure how many ninth-grade students complete high school within 4 years. The bill would also require school districts to have their dropout records examined by a third-party auditor. SB 646 would also do away with the current requirement that the Texas Education Agency project estimated dropout rates for the next five years, which Bivins said is of little value, especially for the resources that have to be dedicated to the undertaking.
Van de Putte Calls for Collaborative Education for San Antonio
San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte on Thursday announced legislation to create a San Antonio Joint Life Sciences Institute. The proposal would combine the resources of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio. The combined institute would allow the institutions to work together to develop and offer advanced degrees in life sciences and collaborate on research.
Senate Votes Final Passage of 19 Bills
During the week, the Senate voted for final passage of 19 bills relating to a wide variety of topics, including:
- CSSB 25 (Shapiro): Concerns sentencing of violent or habitual juvenile offenders.
- SB 68 (Moncrief): Which would expand the availability of protective orders in domestic violence cases.
- SB 82 (Madla): Would allow private high schools to partner with junior and community colleges to offer joint high school and college classes for joint credit.
- SB 126 (Madla): Would establish the Rural Communities Health Care Investment Program. The program is intended to provide loan repayment assistance and financial stipends for healthcare professionals who relocate or initiate their practice in rural areas.
- SB 140 (Moncrief): Would allow the courts more flexibility in awarding custody of children.
After Friday, there will be 101 days left in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. As of Thursday, 740 bills had been filed in the Senate. The Senate stands adjourned until 1 p.m. Monday, February 19.