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A step toward justice

When Michael Morton was convicted of killing his wife in 1987, Ronald Reagan was president. “The Cosby Show” was the top-rated program on television. The iPhone was still two decades away. The Oilers were Houston’s NFL team. Morton was 32, and his son was three years old.

A Williamson Country court sentenced him to life in prison, and Morton spent the next 25 years in a series of small concrete cells, some no bigger than 5 by 9 feet, sleeping on metal bunks, surrounded by the violence so common in today’s high security prisons. For 8,995 days, he wore the same prison uniforms, ate the same tasteless prison food, missed watching his son grow into a man, saw all but the most determined of friends and relatives drift away, believing he had actually committed such a horrendous crime. When he walked out of prison on Oct. 3, 2011, having been declared an innocent man, he was re-entering a world he could hardly recognize.

Morton is only one of a whopping 1,728 people nationally who have been exonerated since 1989, according to the Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School. Average time served for crimes they didn’t commit is 11 years. As the magnitude of this injustice has become more obvious, so have demands to compensate these men and women for their lost lives, lost families, lost opportunities. We are proud to say that Texas has the most robust compensation program in the country, thanks mostly to the efforts of Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and The Innocence Project – perhaps to atone for the fact that Texas leads all other states in exonerations by a country mile. But most states’ programs are woefully inadequate, and 20 states offer no restitution at all. In every state, significant restrictions prevent many exonerees from getting the help they need to rebuild their lives, and overcoming those impediments may require years of litigation.

So we applaud the efforts of representatives Sam Johnson, R-Plano, and John Larson, D-Conn., and Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for helping push through the Wrongful Conviction Tax Relief Act, which makes these awards exempt from federal taxes. The exonerated should have full benefit of any compensation, not just the part left over after taxes. It’s a small step toward justice, and the least we can do for men and women who have lost so much.

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Dallas Morning News: Ellis is ‘Texan of the Year’

The Texas Justice League

Editorial: John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis and Ruth Jones McClendon led the charge for far-reaching criminal justice reforms

These are heady days for conservatives in the Texas Legislature. Tea party victories and a steady trend favoring conservative causes seem to have tilted the state Capitol further to the right than ever before. Why, then, are so many Republican legislators rushing to support what is typically regarded as a liberal cause — criminal justice reform?

There are lots of reasons, but probably the top one is a commonly shared sense of fairness. No one likes to see innocent people railroaded into prison. And through the years far too many Texans have been content to let such injustices go unchallenged, even when an innocent man was sitting on death row.

Three state legislators — Houston Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon of San Antonio — decided the state needed a wake-up call, because a miscarriage of justice is no justice at all. This year, building on momentum from previous sessions, they rallied some of the staunchest conservatives in the House and Senate to their cause of fixing the justice system to reduce injustices and curtail the prison-industrial complex.

Perhaps most remarkable: These three are Democrats.

Through sheer force of will and the persuasive power of their cause, they rallied the Republican majority to their mission. It required remarkable grit for them to persevere amid increasingly harsh partisan divisions, particularly with a tea party stalwart in the lieutenant governor’s seat and an equally devout conservative in the governor’s office.

They worked together — and with allies on both sides of the partisan fence — to accomplish landmark legislation against overwhelming political odds, fomenting change that continues to resonate across the United States.

For their uncommon impact, McClendon, Ellis and Whitmire are our Dallas Morning News 2015 Texans of the Year.

• Among at least a half-dozen measures to which their names are attached are reforms that:

• Established a commission to review exoneration cases and dissect how innocent people get sent to prison.

• Changed grand jury procedures so prosecutors wouldn’t have such an unfair advantage over poor defendants.

• Established a convicted prisoner’s right to DNA testing in cases where evidence is likely to contain biological material.

Eased criminal proceedings for misdemeanor offenses committed by children, effectively altering the cradle-to-prison pipeline that helps to keep the Texas prison system constantly full.

To get an idea of the hurdles these three have faced in the Legislature, we contacted various lawmakers and behind-the-scenes political players. They uniformly described a strong reluctance among rank-and-file Republicans to embrace criminal justice reform. Swaying these skeptics didn’t come easily. McClendon, Ellis and Whitmire strategized, triangulated and found ways to win hearts and minds without asking anyone to compromise on core beliefs.

Ellis’ alliance with a famed defense attorney

During the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, Barry Scheck acquired national fame with his devastating challenge to the flawed DNA-collection methods of Los Angeles police. Like it or not, Simpson’s not-guilty verdict was a testament to the difference a great defense lawyer can make.

Ellis’ problem in Texas was the opposite of great lawyering. When extremely low-quality attorneys are all that’s available to society’s most vulnerable defendants — those on the edges of poverty — the chances increase dramatically that prosecutors will steamroll defendants into conviction. That’s how innocent people wind up in prison, wondering what hit them. It’s happened at least 237 times in Texas.

In 2000, Ellis drew Scheck’s attention because of the senator’s deft maneuvering to delay a Texas prisoner’s execution. Then-Gov. George W. Bush was off campaigning for the presidency. Lt. Gov. Rick Perry was out of the country. That left Ellis, serving as the lieutenant governor pro tem, as the acting governor with the power to grant temporary reprieves.

A DNA test was the last hope for death-row convict Ricky McGinn to avoid execution. Ellis phoned Bush to consult, then granted a 30-day delay for the DNA test. The results wound up confirming McGinn’s guilt, and he was ultimately executed. But more important for Ellis was setting a precedent so that death-row convicts could gain easier access to potentially exculpatory DNA evidence — access that was further codified into law in 2015 through Ellis’ leadership as part of a years-long legislative effort.

“From then on, we’ve worked together,” Scheck said of Ellis’ maneuver in the McGinn case. The senator now serves as national board chairman of the Innocence Project, which Scheck co-founded with law partner Peter Neufeld.

Ellis says Scheck has been the legal brains behind many of the measures the senator introduced to level the playing field between prosecutor and defendant. But the job fell solely to Ellis to coax his conservative colleagues into supporting what they jokingly label his “hug-a-thug” bills. One such bill this year was a team effort, along with McClendon and Whitmire, to win the establishment of a commission to examine why so many innocent people have been sent to prison in Texas.

Texas leads the nation in exonerations, including numerous murder convictions with the potential for a death-penalty sentence. Always looming under such circumstances is the specter of an innocent person being executed.

Ellis knew that he had to approach his conservative colleagues with extreme caution. If anything in his approach smacked of an effort to ban the death penalty, he knew defeat of the review commission bill would come swiftly.

Ellis said he constantly had to remind his Senate colleagues that he’s not against the death penalty. As governor pro tem, Ellis notes, he has given the go-ahead for three executions.

“I don’t want anybody to be able to pigeonhole me and not listen to my arguments on criminal justice reforms by dismissing me and saying: ‘You’re just against the death penalty,’” Ellis said. “It has stopped the argument against listening to me when I say I’m the only person on this floor who, three times, has said, ‘The state will proceed with an execution.’”

The measures he championed this year — and in previous legislative sessions — have targeted every major facet of flawed criminal justice, from prosecutors’ reliance on junk science (such as bite-mark evidence) and flawed eyewitness testimony, to holding overzealous prosecutors accountable and improving public-defender funding so indigents can’t be railroaded into prison.

He credits teamwork, especially with Whitmire, for much of what he has accomplished. Their senses of humor are legendary in the Senate. No one works a room the way they do.

“Our personalities are very much in sync,” Ellis says. “We work hard, we play hard, and we try to get along with people.”

Whitmire’s bona fides on criminal justice

John Whitmire is dean of the Texas Senate. When he takes the floor, he commands attention. Maybe it’s his shaved head.

After assuming the state’s No. 2 office this year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took a lot of heat from fellow conservatives for wasting his appointment powers to name Whitmire — a Democrat — to chair the powerful Senate Criminal Justice Committee. But Patrick never hesitated.

In fact, Patrick doubled down, naming Whitmire to lead a Senate panel looking into jail safety issues after the August death of Sandra Bland, whose videotaped manhandling by a state trooper drew nationwide condemnation.

Whitmire uses a quick story to convince skeptics that he’s no softy on criminal justice issues. In 1992, Whitmire, his wife and 9-year-old daughter were confronted in their garage by a masked gunman.

“I had to beg an armed robber not to shoot us,” Whitmire recalled. “I never have to take a back seat to anybody that was tougher on crime than me because I’ve been there and experienced the horror. … It’s something you never really get over.”

“I’m kind of recognized as tough, and have always been,” Whitmire says of his Senate reputation. His colleagues wouldn’t take him seriously otherwise, he adds. “I couldn’t survive [politically] — plus, that’s my real belief. I think violent offenders ought to be kept confined for long periods of time. But if you’re going to have the resources to keep rapists and child molesters locked up for long periods of time, you can’t waste money on the nonviolent people.”

To couch the reform argument in ways his conservative colleagues can embrace, Whitmire dispenses with the heartstrings approach and instead appeals to their sense of economic logic: Why continue building expensive prisons that require more and more felony convictions to justify their existence?

Whitmire says that’s at the heart of what he terms the prison-industrial complex — a system designed by contractors who profit off building and servicing prisons and keeping them full. Does Texas really need to keep filling prisons with drug users and the mentally ill, Whitmire asks, when it’s far cheaper to put them into treatment programs?

Picking his fight over ‘pick-a-pal’ grand juries

Whitmire’s home city, Houston, became the focal point last year of a statewide controversy over the antiquated “pick-a-pal” grand jury selection system, by which some judges would handpick the people serving on grand juries instead of selecting jurors at random.

A handpicked system typically involved a judge choosing acquaintances or associates. Such juries had a far greater chance of being loaded with like-minded individuals with preconceived notions of guilt or innocence. They also had a higher probability of being skewed along racial lines, as Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg explored last year in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of columns.

Pick-a-pal “had really become a volatile issue,” Whitmire said. He made it his mission in 2015 to reverse the good-ol’-boy way of doing things.

He describes that victory as his single most important achievement of the 2015 session, though he’s also proud of having persuaded his colleagues to decriminalize truancy in large urban public school districts. That measure led to hundreds of thousands of juvenile criminal records being expunged, and it rolled back the stiff $500 court fines that have overly penalized poorer families.

Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist who closely follows state politics, praises Whitmire’s tactic of using the prison cost-savings argument to win over his conservative colleagues. Recent drops in urban crime rates have made it harder than ever for fiscal hawks to justify such heavy expenditures.

“It’s not as though Texas had an epiphany,” Jillson said. Whitmire simply recognized an opening and exploited it.

McClendon’s battle within the battle

McClendon took on her reform challenge in the House at the same time she was fighting lung cancer. Treatment involved weeks of debilitating radiation and chemotherapy. By the end of the session, she had had trouble speaking and was barely able to walk. She powered through.

McClendon began circulating a tandem bill with Ellis in 2013 to establish the exoneration review commission. She wanted the commission named after Timothy Cole, a military veteran and Texas Tech student whose case in the rape of Tech sophomore Michele Mallin was ramrodded through the justice system.

Mallin’s eyewitness identification of Cole sealed the deal for his conviction. There was only one problem: She was wrong, and DNA evidence ultimately proved it. While serving a 25-year prison sentence, Cole, 39, had a massive asthma attack. He died in prison in 1999 an innocent man.

McClendon and Ellis vowed to redress what they regarded as a supreme injustice.

The Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission was designed to serve a legislative purpose on wrongful convictions equivalent to what the National Transportation Safety Board does on big accidents, Ellis explained. In other words: Go in, study what went wrong and make recommendations to help ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Opponents quickly began circulating talking points to defeat McClendon’s bill. This unelected commission, they asserted, would have authority to tell the judiciary how to do its job. Nothing less than a backdoor attempt to outlaw the death penalty, they charged. In 2013, Rep. Jeff Leach, a youthful-looking, conservative freshman representative from Plano, recognized that problems were brewing and offered to help McClendon with her bill.

“I had so many Republicans who were against me, maybe he felt sorry for me,” she recalled with a laugh.

Leach said he needed no persuading to support her cause. “I’m very passionately and proudly pro-life. This is a pro-life issue for me. There’s no bigger government than a government that robs your freedom for a crime you didn’t commit,” he explained.

Ellis and Whitmire had their hands full winning approval in the Senate. But Leach and McClendon knew the real challenge would come in the House, where a 2-to-1 Republican majority ruled and disparate political interests were at play. The opposition wasn’t going to make it easy, Leach said.

As it turned out, the unexpected drama came in a Senate committee meeting.

A Senate collision nearly derails the effort

A lone senator, Republican Joan Huffman of Houston, proved to be the biggest hurdle, starting in the 2013 session. The exoneration-review commission bill was before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Whitmire chaired. Huffman was vice chair, and she had made no secret of her skepticism.

Huffman and Whitmire have a long history together. She was the chief felony prosecutor for the Harris County district attorney’s office at the time of Whitmire’s encounter with the gunman in his garage.

Disaster struck when Tim Cole’s brother, Cory Session, testified before the Criminal Justice Committee in 2013. Whitmire had been called away from the room, leaving Huffman in charge. She openly expressed misgivings about the commission, prompting an angry outburst from Session. He told Huffman to go find another job. Storming out of the hearing room, Session audibly muttered the word “bitch.”

“I just thought her demeanor and her tone were deplorable,” he told us. “She harpooned that piece of legislation.”

Whitmire returned to the hearing room, astonished at how quickly things had disintegrated. He tried to smooth over the rift with his colleague, but to no avail.

McClendon decided to go for the jugular. She placed point-of-order objections on a slew of Huffman’s Senate bills pending before the House. The parliamentary maneuver effectively stopped Huffman’s bills cold.

“Oh, it got personal,” Ellis recalled. “It was tense.”

Ellis and McClendon knew the effort was dead for 2013, but they didn’t give up. Neither did Cory Session. Last year, when a monument to Cole was unveiled in Lubbock, Session made sure the state’s highest-profile Republicans were present — then-Sen. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Gov. Rick Perry. Session said he meant their presence to serve as a direct signal to Huffman.

When hearings were assigned to committees this year, the exoneration review commission bill went not to Whitmire’s Criminal Justice Committee but rather to the State Affairs Committee, which Huffman chaired. It meant Session and his family members would have to appear before Huffman.

Session prudently kept his mouth shut and let his relatives speak. Huffman did not stand in the way. After Ellis quietly negotiated some modifications to ensure GOP support, the bill sailed through — with Huffman joining in the unanimous vote for approval.

Conservatives transformed from skeptics to champions, Session said, after hearing stories like Cole’s, about “people trying to pursue the American dream, but it turns into the American nightmare.”

On the House side this session, McClendon and Leach wound up mustering an overwhelming vote: 138 yeas and only five nays. The lopsided numbers disguise the amount of effort that went into it, McClendon said.

“We had Republicans standing in our way, but we also had Republicans who understood what Timothy Cole was all about,” McClendon said.

Members were moved to tears when McClendon, weakened by her cancer treatment, took the floor to address the full House after the bill won final approval. Virtually the entire membership huddled around to cheer this final legislative victory before her retirement.

“My colleagues were all so wonderful,” McClendon said. But what was going on? Republicans and Democrats just don’t huddle up and cheer together like that, she thought. It was like the House had been taken over by space aliens. “I’m sitting there trying to figure out: Where did they all come from?”

Ellis jokes about how badly he underestimated McClendon’s cross-party appeal. “We probably should’ve gotten her to carry more bills this session,” he said.

SMU’s Jillson credits Whitmire, Ellis and McClendon for shrewdness in working the political system to their advantage despite the odds and recognizing that the moment was ripe for change.

Scheck says the three proved themselves adept at zeroing in on tea party outrage over the damage that big government can do. The legislative record speaks to their achievements in turning Texas around.

“I have a national perspective on this,” Scheck says. “Texas has found a lot of solutions,” in large part because of the groundbreaking work Ellis, McClendon and Whitmire, among others, have accomplished.

“And now,” he adds, “this is a national trend.”

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Houston legislator offers climate change bill

GALVESTON – The “F” that Texas got in a recent study that graded states on their readiness to confront the extreme weather posed by climate change came as no surprise to state Sen. Rodney Ellis.

The Houston Democrat has introduced a bill in each of the last four sessions of the Legislature that would require state agencies to prepare for climate change, but so far it’s gone nowhere.

 “Unfortunately, anything that’s associated with combating the effects climate change has a difficult time moving through today’s Texas Capitol,” Ellis said.

Texas received an overall “F” in planning to prepare for extreme weather in the report, “States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card.” The Lone Star State received the “F” grade for being unprepared to deal with extreme heat, “D-” for its drought preparations, “D” for wildfires and “D+” for coastal flooding.

The report said Texas was one of the five states receiving the lowest grades  and one of the three states facing the most extreme weather changes.

Ellis says he intends to reintroduce the bill in the 2017 session. “The science is clear: the world is getting hotter,” Ellis said.  NOAA announced that 2014 was the hottest year on record, and 2001-10 was the hottest decade on record.

“And even if there’s disagreement about what’s causing the increased heat, you must have spent too much time in the sun to not think it’s getting hotter. So Texas has to plan for this hotter future.”

The bill filed by Ellis last year would have required 12 state agencies to produce climate adaptation plans.

Each agency, as part of its plan, would have had to:

–Conduct a climate change vulnerability assessment.

–Review existing programs for how they would be affected by climate change.

–List the steps necessary for dealing with climate change.

–Determine how preparing for climate change would affect the budget during the next five and 10 years.

–List potential funding for climate change preparation.

–Prepare a statewide monitoring system for climate change’s effect on the agency.

–Obtain a written statement from the state climatologist  about the adequacy and scientific basis of the plan.

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Letter requesting task force on Capitol’s Confederate monuments

On Monday, July 6, Senator Ellis joined Rep. Senfronia Thompson, Rep. Sylvester Turner, Sen. Royce West, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini to ask the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker to appoint a task force to consider the Confederate monuments that dot the Texas Capitol grounds.

The letter can be downloaded here (.pdf) or read below.

Capitol Confederate monuments letter-page-001 Capitol Confederate monuments letter-page-002

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Ellis to AG Lynch: Please keep DOJ’s eyes on Texas

In the wake of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion that county clerks could disregard the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage,  Sen. Rodney Ellis sent the following letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. A copy of the letter may be viewed here.

Dear Attorney General Lynch:

Yesterday, the Attorney General of Texas issued legal guidance to the state’s county clerks, justices of the peace, and judges advising them that they can refuse to follow the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodge. Although the Attorney General’s opinion is nonbinding, it significantly increases the likelihood of civil rights violations should local officials follow the legal advice and refuse to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married.

I therefore write to urge the Department of Justice to monitor the implementation of Obergefell and intervene, if necessary, to ensure that Texas officials do not flout the Supreme Court’s ruling and blatantly discriminate against same-sex couples attempting to secure the rights granted to them under the U.S. Constitution. Officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution should not be able to deny Texans’ constitutional rights with the backing of state legal guidance.

The Attorney General of Texas’ opinion argues that religious freedoms may allow accommodation of governmental officials’ religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. I have serious concerns about the far-reaching implications of this blanket protection for officials who may choose to ignore the law based on their personal religious beliefs. Will judges be able to argue that they should not have to recognize or authorize divorces if it offends their religious sensibilities? Could a judge refuse to sentence a defendant to the death penalty under his or her belief that “thou shalt not kill” means just that? Where does this end?

Again, I request the DOJ to monitor the implementation of the decision to prevent civil rights violations and ensure that loving, committed couples are able to formally celebrate their union. Religion must not be relied upon as an excuse to discriminate and refuse to fulfill the duties of government officials’ taxpayer-funded jobs. As the majority opinion stated, the Constitution grants gay and lesbian couples “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” I ask that the full weight of the DOJ be placed behind securing those rights for all Texans.


Rodney Ellis

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Report: Texas Payday Lenders and Prosecutors Team Up to Criminally Pursue Borrowers

by  Published on 

In March 2012, Margaret Jones, a 71-year-old Austin great-grandmother, found herself in a financial crisis. Her husband had recently passed away, she’d lost a temporary job and she was struggling to live on a Social Security check of $1,160 each month. Jones, who asked that her real first name not be used, had moved in with her daughter but was looking for her own place. She had just enough to cover utilities, groceries, gas for her car and rent, but not enough left over for a deposit for an apartment. Cash Plus, a California-based payday loan franchise, had recently opened a location near her home in South Austin, so one day Jones went in and took out a $225 loan. In a month, she would owe Cash Plus $271.91—an effective APR of 245 percent. Jones hoped to be settled in her new place by then and have her finances in order enough to pay the loan off. But a month later, her financial situation had worsened.

The deposit on her new place was tied up. The electricity bill was much higher than expected. And she’d also taken on an auto-title loan; not keeping up with the payments would mean losing her car. She explained all this to a Cash Plus manager, who persuaded her to renew, or “roll over,” her payday loan by carrying the balance forward and paying $50 in fees.

But then the next month Jones faced the same hopeless prospect. This time she didn’t even have the cash to pay the renewal fees.

“I was in an impossible situation,” she said, “but at the same time I wanted to keep my obligations with these people.” She pleaded for a payment plan but the store manager demanded the full amount.

“What I thought was going to happen was they would have some kind of sympathy for a senior who was living on a fixed income of Social Security and that they would allow me to make some kind of monthly payment.”

Instead, the manager began haranguing Jones over the phone for the full amount of $271. Jones kept asking for a payment plan. One day, he told her, “I hate to do this to you,” but didn’t explain what he was planning to do. After that she didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, until the day he called to give her a “case number” and a telephone number to call. As she would find out later, the man had filed a criminal theft by check complaint against her with a Travis County justice of the peace.

“I was just terrified to the point that I couldn’t eat, my blood pressure went up,” she said. “I was just nervous, scared.”

Jones hunkered down, waiting for something to happen. But nothing came in the mail, no threatening letters or legal notices. In February, almost two years later, she called the Department of Public Safety to see about getting her driver’s license renewed—but DPS refused. That’s how she found out that a warrant had been issued for arrest. As she later discovered with the help of a pro bono attorney, the justice of the peace court had sent her paperwork to a previous address and she’d missed a court hearing. In her absence, the judge had ordered her to pay $981 in court fees and restitution, and issued a warrant for her arrest.

Pursuing, or even threatening, criminal charges against payday and title borrowers is strictly prohibited by Texas law, with very few exceptions. The Texas Constitution unequivocally states, “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.”

But new research released this morning by Texas Appleseed shows that criminal charges against payday borrowers for missing payments is common in Texas. Texas Appleseed documents more than 1,500 criminal complaints of bad check and theft by check allegations filed by payday loan companies in Texas between 2012 and the spring of this year. Many of them resulted in fines, arrest warrants and even jail time.

The research builds on reporting by the Observer published in July 2013, which found 1,700 instances in which payday lenders in Texas have filed criminal complaints against customers. The Observer story prompted an ongoing investigation by the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, which regulates the industry in Texas, into one payday loan business, Cash Biz. It also led regulators to issue an advisory bulletin to lenders warning them to stop pursuing criminal charges against their customers.

Texas Appleseed found 13 different payday loan companies pursuing criminal charges in eight different counties, including Travis, Dallas, Harris and Collin. Texas Appleseed filed a complaint today with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. The complaint letter, which includes 700 pages of supporting documentation calls for state and federal authorities to launch an investigation and take enforcement action against lenders abusing the law and their customers.

“In addition to their outrageous rates and lending practices, payday loan businesses are illegally using the criminal justice system to coerce repayment form borrowers,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed. “This directly contravenes state and federal law, which eliminated debtor’s prisons long ago.”

In one justice of the peace court in Harris County, the group found that arrest warrants were issued in more than 42 percent of the cases and at least six people served jail time. In Collin County, there were 740 documented criminal cases against payday borrowers—636 from a single lender, PLS Loan Store—and $132,000 collected from borrowers.

Consumer advocates say district attorneys and courts are—intentionally or not—acting as debt collection agencies for predatory lenders. A letter from a DA threatening steep fines, arrest and jail time can be a highly persuasive tool. In Margaret Jones’ case, a Travis County constable paid her two visits. The first time she wasn’t home; the second she hurried him inside before her neighbors could see. The constable urged her to contact the court.

She said she fell apart. “I was scared. I cried. I kept saying, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I was just devastated. Hurt and devastated.”

Eventually, through Texas Appleseed, Jones found a pro bono attorney who agreed to take her case. The lawyer was able to persuade the Travis County Attorney’s Office to dismiss the charges.

Jones said she thinks Cash Plus knew that she would be unable to pay from the get-go.

“If they couldn’t get their money one way,” she said, “they’ll get it another, even if it hurts the poor. That’s what I am. I’m a poor person. And it saddens me” how many people “have become prey to such predatory lenders.”

Because record-keeping is spotty and hot check cases are handled by a patchwork of hundreds of DAs, county attorneys and justices of the peace, it’s likely that the problem is more pervasive, said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed.

“We believe that the cases we documented are just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Utility paths – After years of hurdles, plans begin


It can be hard to get things done in politics, so we love to see it when a worthy plan comes together – especially when that plan involves bicycle paths.

Houston is already well on the way to upgrading our bayous into usable green space, but Mayor Annise Parker on Friday announced the next target for transformation – utility rights-of-way.

Parker joined representatives from environmental groups and CenterPoint Energy to announce that the utility company was kicking off the plan to transform grassy stretches of power lines into an extensive system of trails that will connect with the bayous – complete with a $1.5 million donation to get things started. That’s a hefty gift from a company that didn’t have to play ball in the first place, and an addition to Houston’s history of corporate stewardship.

These rights-of-way have been a missing link in any plan to build a bicycle system that can actually function as a transportation network. The bayous may meander across our city, but they essentially only function as an east-west corridor. These utility stretches will be the north-south avenues that complete a grid for pedal power.

The plan required cooperation at the city level, in the state Legislature and in private office buildings. All deserve praise for making it happen, especially Republican state Rep. Jim Murphy and Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis, who worked to pass a bill that would indemnify CenterPoint against liability for negligence along the rights-of-way – similar to the standard held in 47 other states.

Despite our city’s size, it often feels like Houston has one of the weakest voices up in Austin. These two were able to cut through the usual chaos.

Progress is often slow, and it will be a while before Houston’s hike-and-bike network is complete. But after waiting to clear the legal hurdles, it seems like everything is finally on the right path.

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50 years later, Obama salutes effects of Civil Rights Act


AUSTIN, Tex. — For three days, the veterans of a long-ago movement reunited and drew together their spiritual heirs to explore the legacy of the Civil Rights Act a half-century after it transformed America. And then the legacy walked onstage.

President Obama presented himself on Thursday as the living, walking, talking and governing embodiment of the landmark 1964 law that banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.

In a speech that stirred an audience of civil rights champions here at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, Mr. Obama acknowledged that racism has hardly been erased and that government programs have not always succeeded. But, he added, “I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of L.B.J.’s efforts, because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts, because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts.”

Thanks to the law and the movement that spawned it and the progress made after it, Mr. Obama said, “new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody,” regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. “They swung open for you, and they swung open for me,” he said. “And that’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”

The president’s speech marking the 50th anniversary of the law Johnson signed in July 1964 was one more moment for Mr. Obama to address his own role in history. Though Mr. Obama often seemed reluctant to be drawn into discussions of race relations in his first term, insistent on being the president of everyone, he has been more open in talking about it since winning re-election.

The president made unusually personal comments after the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose death two years ago set off a roiling national debate about race, saying the slain young black man “could have been me.” He recently created an initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young men of color and has been more vocal about voting rights and equal pay for women. His administration has become more active in looking for ways to curb racial profiling by law enforcement and disparities in criminal sentencing. On Friday, he will address the Rev. Al Sharpton’s organization in New York.

“The second election and final election is behind him so he’s free,” Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, the civil rights icon who introduced Mr. Obama, said in an interview afterward. “There’s something about not having to run again that frees you. He’s liberated, and I do think he’s speaking out more.”

Still, Mr. Obama used most of Thursday’s address to extol Johnson in what could be the most generous speech by any sitting president about the Texan since his funeral, one that all but ignored the Vietnam War. Mr. Obama offered little of his own personal journey on race, which might not have connected to some in the room given that the president, the son of an absent father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was a child growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia during the civil rights movement.

Nor did Mr. Obama use the speech to advance his policy priorities. He did not mention overhauling immigration, perhaps his biggest legislative goal, and did not say anything about same-sex marriage, which has been the most expansive social change during his presidency. He did not mention his fight against efforts to discourage voting, which the night before he called “un-American.” Nor did he cite equal pay for women, the theme of other speeches this week.

“He did a kind of inspiration and that’s important,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights activist, said in an interview. “But beyond inspiration, we need the legislation, the budget and the policies to protect Johnson’s legacy.”

Mr. Obama was one of four presidents to address the conference. Jimmy Carter spoke on Tuesday and Bill Clinton on Wednesday.

Former President George W. Bush used a Thursday evening speech to call the achievement gap between white and black children “a national scandal” and urge both parties to address it as the central civil rights issue of the modern era.

As president, Mr. Bush signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind education law, and he lamented on Thursday that “gains have stalled” and noted that a typical 17-year-old African-American student reads at the same level as a 13-year-old white student. Addressing critics of No Child Left Behind, he said he did not object to adjustments.

“But the problem comes when people start to give up on the goal,” he said. “Some have ideological objections to any federal role in education. Some are too comfortable with status quo. The alliance between ideology and complacency seems to be getting stronger. I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations is returning.”

The event felt a little like a time capsule. Between speeches and panels, the audience listened to 1960s anthems by Bob Dylan and watched a grainy black-and-white video with scratchy audio of Johnson. A photo montage recalled the famous, and infamous, moments of the era, then traced the progress of race relations all the way to Mr. Obama’s presidency. The crowd stood for the gospel singer Mavis Staples, who performed “We Shall Overcome.”

On hand were Johnson’s two daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; Maria Shriver, the niece of John F. Kennedy; and civil rights figures like Julian Bond and Andrew Young.

Mark K. Updegrove, the library director, showed the Obamas copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment ending slavery and signed by Abraham Lincoln, as well as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts signed by Johnson.

Mr. Obama’s encomium to Johnson at times sounded like a rebuttal of critics, mainly on the left, who have compared him unfavorably with the signer of so many major pieces of legislation. “He was charming when he needed to be, ruthless when required,” Mr. Obama said. “He could wear you down with logic and argument, he could horse trade and he could flatter.”

All traits that critics and some supporters say Mr. Obama does not seem to have. But unlike Johnson’s powerful Democratic majorities, Mr. Obama has a Republican House, and he argued that progress continued to be made “however many times we have to take a quarter of a loaf or a half a loaf.”

In a ruminative moment, he said: “You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decisions made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision. But the presidency also affords a unique opportunity to bend those currents by shaping our laws and by shaping our debates, by working within the confines of the world as it is but also by reimagining the world as it should be.”

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Ellis Joins Rep. Turner, Advocates in Support of LITE-UP Texas Enrollment

Deadline for low-income Texans to qualify for help on energy bills looming

(Austin, Texas) – Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today joined Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) and advocates urging low-income Texans to sign up for LITE-UP Texas energy bill assistance before the August 10, 2013 deadline.

The LITE-UP Texas program is designed to help qualified low-income individuals who live in areas where they can choose their own electricity provider to reduce their monthly cost of electric service. During this year’s regular session, the 83rd Texas Legislature made profound changes to this program, increasing the discount from 16.5 percent to 82 percent. The 82 percent discount will be effective for this September and also for May, June, July and August of 2014.

“Time is running out for low-income and elderly Texans to get the help they need to keep the power on in late summer,” said Ellis. “We are here to spread the word to make sure that Texans know there is help on the way.”

In 1999 the legislature created the System Benefit Fund to help low-income Texans pay summer energy bills when Texas deregulated electric utility companies. The Fund’s goal was to assist the least fortunate Texans in braving the summer heat, and as temperatures across the state soar to increasingly high levels, that mission is more critical than ever. Unfortunately, this session, the legislature ended the surcharge on customers’ electricity bills but took steps to provide a discount on customers’ September electricity bills for 2013 and May through August bills for 2014. According to the Public Utility Commission, about 500,000 Texans received aid from the System Benefit Fund to help pay their summer bills.

Since the creation of the System Benefit Fund, the legislature has often neglected to use the full balance to help Texans pay their summer electric bills, instead redirecting the balance to shore up budget shortfalls. For instance, in 2011 $650 million was left in the Fund instead of distributed to senior and needy Texans.

“I opposed the reverse Robin Hood plan to take from the poor,” said Ellis. “The System Benefit Fund was created for the explicit purpose of helping low-income Texans pay rising energy bills after electric deregulation. That’s where the money should be going and where Texans want it to go. Unfortunately, our side did not prevail, but at least there is the silver lining that Texans will receive a bigger discount this summer and in 2014, so Texans need to take advantage of it while they can.”


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Ellis Applauds DOJ Effort to Require Continued Preclearance for Texas

Documented evidence continues to show discrimination in Texas’ election procedures

(Austin, Texas)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today applauded the decision by the US Department of Justice to fight to require Texas to receive preclearance for any voting or election law changes.

“I applaud Attorney General Eric Holder and the US Department of Justice’s decision to join the lawsuit that would require Texas to submit all voting law changes for preclearance for the next decade,” said Ellis. “Anyone who thinks Texas doesn’t need continued oversight simply hasn’t been paying attention.”

Despite the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act, Texas has clearly shown a repeated and documented history of discrimination against minority voters. In fact, last year Texas was singled out as the only state to pass redistricting maps which were deliberately discriminatory.

In 2011, Texas also approved so-called voter ID legislation that will make it significantly more difficult for approximately one million eligible Texas voters to exercise their right to vote. The legislation established some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. The law — opposed by groups ranging from AARP to MALDEF to the NAACP and LULAC — requires voters to show picture identification in order to vote. Throughout this entire process, Texas consistently failed to produce information showing the law would not have a discriminatory impact on minority voters.

“This is hopefully just the first step,” said Ellis. “Congress needs to take action revamp the Voting Rights Act to create a formula which takes into account current and historical discrimination and bias while meeting the requirements the Supreme Court has set out. Otherwise, the voting rights of millions of Americans are in peril.”

In the last decade, Texas continued to experience tremendous growth, and that meant our state added four new members of Congress, and dramatically changed State House and Senate districts. African Americans and Hispanics accounted for over 90 percent of that growth, which should have meant additional seats for minority candidates. Unfortunately, the Republican-dominated legislature drew maps which ignored this growth and packed minority voters into fewer districts, weakening their voting strength while strengthening Anglo voting power in Texas. For instance, of the four congressional districts created, only one real minority opportunity district was created, despite the fact that nearly all Texas’ growth is due to minority – predominantly Hispanic – growth. And that district was in North Texas, not Harris County.

In state legislative races nearly 90 percent of Texas growth was due to growing minority population, yet we gained no new seats in House and Senate. Texas is now 54.1 percent minority – and growing – yet only one-third of Texas legislative seats are minority opportunity districts.

“It is a sad and discomfiting fact that Texas is the only state in the country which adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that have been ruled to be deliberately discriminatory to African-American and Latino voters,” said Ellis. “Other states covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, were able to adopt redistricting plans without deliberately discriminating against their minority citizens. In each instance these other covered states gained approval of their plans under the Voting Rights Act, but not Texas.”


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