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Making open beaches a campaign issue

This is great.

Michele Petty

The Texas Supreme Court’s decision weakening the state Open Beaches Act has become a key issue in the race for one of the two contested Supreme Court seats in the Nov. 6 election.

San Antonio attorney Michele Petty stood in front of a battered beach home in Surfside last weekend to criticize her opponent, Justice Nathan Hecht, for siding with the majority in Severance v. Patterson, the case that led to the controversial decision.

“Texans have shown their love for their beach and they want access to the beach, and the Texas Supreme Court has ignored that,” said Petty, who would be the only Democrat on the court if she defeated Hecht. Hecht did not respond to a request for comment.

The Open Beaches Act historically has been interpreted to allow the public beach to move landward with erosion, a concept known as a “rolling easement.” The court said the rolling easement does not apply if the erosion is sudden, as in the case of a storm. Although the decision applied only to West Galveston Island, it potentially could affect other areas of the coast.

“We now have private beaches in Texas where the public can be excluded,” Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said after court issued its 5-3 decision in April. The ninth justice, Chief Judge Wallace Jefferson, did not participate.

Patterson, a Republican, would not go as far as supporting Petty, but said, “It’s an issue and the voters need to be aware of it.”

Patterson has been making an issue of this for awhile now. I’ll give him a pass on not going all the way – he does want to be the Republican candidate for Lite Guv in 2014, after all. Supreme Court races are generally low profile and the issues that usually get brought up don’t often resonate with voters. This time it may be different. Here we have the confluence of a longtime incumbent, a ruling that has been criticized across the political spectrum, a newsworthy issue, and a candidate who appears to be savvy about earned media. Michele Petty may not win this fall, but if she doesn’t it won’t be because the stars refused to align in her favor for her.

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