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January 7th, 2013:

Interview with Sylvia Garcia

Sylvia Garcia

The special election in SD06 to succeed the late Sen. Mario Gallegos is Saturday, January 26, and early voting for this election begins Wednesday, January 9. There are two serious candidates in this race, State Rep. Carol Alvarado and former County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. I will publish an interview with Rep. Alvarado on Wednesday, and today I bring you one with Commissioner Garcia. Sylvia Garcia’s resume of public service is long and accomplished – Municipal Court judge, City Controller, Harris County Commissioner, President of NALEO, and on and on. She has been a strong advocate and ally for many progressive causes, and as one might expect she has numerous Democratic elected officials and progressive-aligned groups such as the AFL-CIO and SEIU in her corner. Here’s the interview:

Sylvia Garcia interview

Feel free to add your speculation here about who will finish first and whether or not there will need to be a runoff.

A look ahead to the 2013 Lege

The Trib previews the biennial hijinks of the 2013 Texas Legislature.

The last time Texas lawmakers convened in Austin, they were absorbed with numbers and boundaries: how to make ends meet with a deflated state budget and draw new district maps the courts would approve.

But with improving fiscal conditions and redistricting mostly in the rearview mirror, they are approaching the 2013 legislative session with some pressing policy questions, from whether to introduce private school vouchers into the state’s public education system to whether they should put in effect — and accept financing for — major provisions of the federal health care overhaul.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will face the consequences of the sweeping cuts and budget-balancing tricks of the 2011 session, including a multibillion-dollar Medicaid shortfall and a lawsuit — expected to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court early this year and decided in the summer — over how the state finances public education.

The Legislature is also staring down the barrel of some other major investments, from ensuring that Texas has the water to meet its soaring population growth to finding consistent revenue streams for long-delayed transportation projects.

Do not expect a full respite from hot-button issues; lawmakers have already offered legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks, and to allow teachers to carry concealed handguns in school classrooms. But the Legislature’s Republican majority may take a softer tack toward immigration bills this session, after a national election in which the growing Hispanic population moved even further into the Democratic camp.

Click over and read their list of things to watch for, it’s pretty comprehensive. About the only things I can think of that they didn’t mention were the regularly scheduled push for expanded gambling, a nascent and insane push to eliminate the business margins tax, about which I’ll say more later, and the possibility of further redistricting after the courts have had their say. Check it out.

Substitute WHP has problems: Film at 11

No one could have seen this coming.

Right there with them

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, has been worried about the Women’s Health Program since the state said it would create its own version of the program. That came after the state moved to exclude clinics affiliated with abortion providers, like Planned Parenthood, from participating — which led the federal government to pull all funding.

Howard was worried when she wrote a letter to the Health and Human Services Commission, or HHSC, asking for information about new providers.

“I was told immediately upon sending this letter, by HHSC, that they were in the process of doing a study on this and would get back with me,” Howard said.

The state-run program’s new website prominently shows how to search for local providers, so Howard had one of her staff members visit the program website to see what might be available.

“One of my staff members actually typed in the ZIP code for 78701 and contacted the first 30 providers on that list,” Howard said, “and only found five of the 30 who actually serve women in the Women’s Health Program.”

KUT called a few of the doctors on that list. Of the first three, two said they were not providers in the program.

I really want this program to work, because if it doesn’t then thousands of women will be denied the health care they need, and that’s a problem for all of us. On the other hand, I fully expect this to be a miserable failure, because what does Rick Perry care about women’s health? What’s in it for him? In any event, the Texas WHP website is here. If you have some time on your hands and a sense of mischief, feel free to look up the providers listed in your area and call them to see if they’re aware that they’re listed as such.

Remake the Fifth Circuit!

Yes, please.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is widely viewed as one of the nation’s most conservative federal appellate courts, but President Barack Obama could get a chance to change that perception in his second term.

Ten of the 15 active judges serving on the New Orleans-based court were nominated by Republican presidents. But six of those GOP-nominated judges are eligible for senior status or will be in the next four years, a change that would allow the Democratic president to nominate their replacements.

The court, which reviews cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, also has two open seats that already can be filled.

Federal judges don’t have a mandatory retirement age and aren’t obligated to take senior status, a form of semi-retirement that allows them to continue hearing cases. While there’s no telling how many seats may open up, even a handful of vacancies would give Obama an opportunity to reshape the court’s ideological bent during his second term.

Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow who is an expert on judicial selections, said it’s plausible that the Democratic-nominated judges among active 5th Circuit judges go from being a 2-to-1 minority to holding a slim majority before Obama leaves office.

“I wouldn’t call that math. I’d call that informed speculation,” he cautioned. “It really all depends on the degree to which (Obama) can find nominees that Republican senators find acceptable.”


The 5th Circuit has a reputation for being a corporation-friendly, pro-prosecutor foe of death penalty appeals and abortion rights advocates. It also tends to favor employers over employees and shows more tolerance for organized, state-sanctioned prayer than other circuits.

University of Houston Law Center professor David Dow, who clerked for 5th Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King in the mid-1980s, said judges’ decisions are guided by Supreme Court precedent and statutory language far more than their personal ideology.

“There’s frequently room for people to disagree on what a statute means, but there’s usually not a wide range of disagreement,” he said. “The significance of ideology in most cases can be overstated.”

Dow, who founded the Texas Innocence Network and has represented more than 100 death row inmates in state and federal appeals, estimated that 95 percent of the cases on the 5th Circuit’s docket would be decided the same way no matter which direction the court leans.

I can think of one decision that might have been different with an alternate cast of characters in place. I don’t know much about the justices on the Fifth Circuit Court, but one that I do know is Edith Jones, the previous Chief Justice, who will turn 65 and thus become eligible for senior status in 2014. Jones was the author of that opinion I cited, and if you were to ask me which one justice for whom I’d like to see President Obama appoint a replacement, it would be her. Beyond that, any extra diversity of background and experience – perhaps David Dow would like to don the robes – would be appreciated.

Obama has nominated 42 circuit court judges and has had 30 confirmed as of early December, according to Wheeler. He said Obama’s confirmation rate is fairly consistent with the first terms of Clinton, who had 30 of his 39 nominations confirmed, and George W. Bush, who had 34 of 56 nominees confirmed.

Wheeler sees signs that Obama is poised to pick up the pace of his judicial nominations. The White House has submitted 15 nominations for district court seats since Congress broke in August, far more than his most recent two predecessors did during the same period of their presidencies, he said.

“He may be gearing up to go for broke in his second term,” Wheeler added.

To which I say, “about damn time”. Obama’s seeming lack of urgency in making judicial nominations was something for which he received a fair amount of well-deserved criticism during his first term, though Republican obstruction has been a big factor as well. If he plans to spend the next four years making up for lost time, that would be a fine thing.

UPDATE: I wasn’t aware when I wrote this that Ted Cruz is now on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he joins John Cornyn. Cornyn has not been obstructive to Obama’s district court appointments in Texas, but this is different, and I don’t have any reason to expect that Cruz will play nice. So let’s just say this is more complicated than I originally thought.