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Ellis: Veterans courts relieve strife brought home by troops

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Judge Marc Carter

As this Veterans Day approaches, it is appropriate to honor those who have served our country. Veterans Day is not only flags and parades, though. It is a reminder that, every day, we all have a chance to do something to assist those who have sacrificed so much in our name. That is why we are letting our community know that, even in the criminal justice system, there can be a place where compassion and justice meet. That place is called the Veterans’ Court, and this Veterans Day marks the fifth anniversary of the first such court in Texas, which was started right here in Harris County in November 2009.

Like most great ideas, this one had many people who helped give it a start. From folks in the Legislature who drafted and pushed for the bill in 2009 that authorized the creation of treatment courts for returning vets, to the large number of federal, state, county, judicial and nonprofit officials who helped bring the statute to life in the Harris County district courts, to the local private bar associations, prosecutors and court staff who worked tirelessly to make the implementation work on a day-to-day basis – all are owed a debt of gratitude.

This very special court is a labor of love for all involved. For us, it combines two public-policy issues that are near and dear to our hearts: helping veterans and making our criminal justice system more fair and balanced.

The principle behind these courts is simple: If a veteran suffers from a condition related to his or her service, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that condition leads them to an encounter with the criminal justice system, then our treatment court will ensure they are matched up to the services at the Department of Veterans Affairs to which they are entitled. The court will hold them accountable to use those services and receive the treatment and counseling needed to cope with the residual effects of war. If they complete their treatment honorably, they are given a chance to reclaim their good name and clean record.

To date, 52 veterans of all services, from the Vietnam era to Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, have completed the felony program successfully. Now the Harris County misdemeanor courts are beginning their own program, and today there are 19 such programs across Texas. Each court has chosen to focus on its own unique population. Some have made drug abuse among veterans their priority, as returning vets may self-medicate to cope with PTSD, physical pain from injuries and depression. Other courts focus strictly on the needs of felony offenders and the serious consequences they face in our criminal justice system.

All of these courts are united in their mission to help those who served us. Men and women who might never have gotten treatment to grapple with the profound changes in their lives as a result of military service now have that opportunity thanks to the enacting legislation and the good people from the VA and local governments who put it into practice.

Texas has a long tradition of honoring those who served. Wherever you can, we urge you to ask your local officials to consider such a program so that we can give meaning to the pledge to honor veterans as they return home. We did not march where they marched, yet we can help them carry their burdens back home.

 Ellis, a Democrat representing Houston in the state Senate, is author of the original veterans court legislation in the Legislature. Carter is presiding judge of the Harris County Veterans Court.

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Senator Ellis, Mayor Parker, and others to kick off “Tour de Polls” on Election Day

(Houston, TX) // Tomorrow at 10 am, Senator Ellis will join Mayor Annise Parker, Representative Carol Alvarado, Representative Jessica Farrar, and Houston City Council Member Jack Christie at Market Square Park to kick off a “Tour de Polls” bike ride. The bike ride will take the elected officials to polling locations across the city, allowing them to meet with and encourage Houstonians to vote and have their voices heard.

Press is also welcome to join Senator Ellis when he arrives at his first polling location, First Baptist Church Heights Fellowship Hall (201 E. 9th Street), around 11 am.

Who:           Senator Rodney Ellis

Mayor Annise Parker

Representative Carol Alvarado

Representative Jessica Farrar

City Council Member Jack Christie

What:             Press conference and launch for the “Tour de Polls” bike ride

When:             Tuesday, November 4, 10-10:30 am

Where:           Market Square Park, 301 Milam St, Houston, TX 77002

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Posted in: Press Releases

Sen. Ellis on 5th Circuit’s voter ID ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“I am extremely disappointed the 5th Circuit has chosen to keep in place a law that just last week was ruled to be a ‘poll tax’ that was ‘imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.’ Near last in the country in voter turnout, Texas should be working to get more folks to the polls – not to turn away legal, legitimate voters.”

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Sen. Ellis on federal court’s voter ID ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“Texas has a long and sad history of making it difficult for people to vote. Elected officials repeatedly used the law to keep people out of the voting booth. Decades later, history rightly judges those men and women in a harsh light.”

“As the court ruled, the voter ID law is essentially a modern day poll tax and has the same effect as  other laws used in decades past to keep scores of lawful, legal Americans from voting. It was wrong then, it is wrong now, and I’m pleased the court stood up to protect the right to vote for all Texans.”

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Your Voice is Your Vote – “Lift Every Voice”

Today is National Voter Registration Day, and Texans are less than three weeks away from the deadline to ensure their voice can be heard this November. A voice that is often missing in nonpresidential years is that of our community: African Americans. This is an election year during which we simply cannot afford to stay silent and at home.

Fifty years ago, young people traveled to Mississippi to help register African Americans to vote in what we now call Freedom Summer. Huge resistance met them. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner paid for their bravery with their lives. There have been many sacrifices made before and after that summer for our right to vote, which is why we must honor those who fought for this sweet freedom by exercising it.

There are those who would stand in the way of our constitutional right to vote in this state. They call for repeal the Voting Rights Act. They support discriminatory redistricting maps so that our voices are drowned out on the issues that matter to us like the education of our children, health care for our families, and the right to a fair wage.  They would bar us from access to the ballot with strict new voter identification laws akin to a poll tax.

In the end, far too many Texas voters simply don’t show up, causing our state to consistently rank near the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2012, turnout was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th in the nation. In 2010, we were dead last.

But Texas is stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, and class – are included in the political conversation. Speaking our priorities through our votes holds those we elect accountable for the work they do on our behalf. We must lift every voice before the October 6th voter registration deadline and ensure that we are heard in the discussion about Texas’ future.

This National Voter Registration Day, make sure that you are registered to vote and your registration is up-to-date. Then push your family, your friends, your neighbors, and everyone else you can think of to register or update their status as well.

There is much at stake this November. Honor the memories of those who fought to assure we have this important right by making our voices heard louder than ever at the ballot box. We cannot afford to stay silent any longer.

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Sen. Ellis on Texas’ school finance ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

 “For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult issues facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court,” said Sen. Ellis. “The school finance system has always been patched rather than perfected, as legislators are seemingly content to see it sputter along another two years in spite of its obvious inequities.”

“Now that our school finance system has once again been ruled unconstitutional, you may hear some elected officials claim that the legislature cannot act until after the case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and the nine justices have had an opportunity to rule. I firmly disagree.”

“The legislature should treat the underfunding of our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. In fact, there’s ample precedent for us working to solve this issue prior to the Texas Supreme Court weighing in. In 2004 and 2005, the last time the constitutionality of Texas’ school finance system was in court, the legislature worked on school finance for three special sessions and one regular session – all before the Supreme Court finally ruled the system was unconstitutional.”

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Sen. Ellis and Sen. Garcia team up for voting rights

Today at Houston City Hall, Senators Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) were joined by the NAACP, LULAC, and Texas Civil Rights Project at a press conference to promote voter registration and engagement in Houston and the state of Texas.

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Thanks to a partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor, the Senators will post over 40 billboards in English and Spanish in the greater Houston area to encourage citizens to register and vote ahead of November general elections. Advertising space is being donated by Clear Channel Outdoor to the NAACP and LULAC for the campaign and is valued in excess of $75,000. Hundreds of thousands potential voters will view these messages over the coming six weeks prior to the registration deadline.

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Senator Ellis’ speech from the press conference is below:

Thank you all for attending this press conference.

I want to thank the City for opening up its doors for us here today.

Senator Garcia and I will be teaming up with the Houston NAACP, LULAC, Texas Civil Rights Project and a host of other groups some of which are here today, to promote voter registration and engagement in the Houston area.

There will be billboards posted throughout Senator Garcia’s and my district with various civil rights organizations to encourage people to register and vote, thanks to space donated by Clear Channel Outdoor.

The billboard campaign will begin on this Monday, August 18th and will run for six weeks leading up to the voter registration deadline on October 6th in order to vote in the November 4th election.

It is only fitting for the NAACP, LULAC, and Civil Rights Project to join us in this effort because they have led the fight for voting rights for a long time, and they continue to lead the charge to protect them.

My billboard has a simple message “We Shall Overcome, Register and Vote.”

The phrase “We Shall Overcome,” like these civil rights organizations, embodies our country’s journey to encourage and protect the right to vote.

As we celebrate the 49th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we must take action to preserve what earlier generations fought to secure. The easiest first step is to vote,”

We have come a long way to ensure our citizens’ right to vote is preserved, but we still have a long way to go.

This September, I will be going to Corpus Christi to testify in the trial to determine the fate of Texas’ voter ID law.

This law’s attempt to impose stringent voter ID restrictions is nothing more than a 21st century poll tax on legitimate, legal voters.

We have already seen the negative impact of the voter ID law in the 2013 November election.

The New York Times reported 200 voters statewide and 90 here in Harris County cast provisional ballots because of an ID issue and never returned to their local election office within six days after the election to show the proper ID for their vote to count.

Many others had to sign a similar name affidavit, particularly women who changed their names after getting married or divorced, because their name didn’t exactly match their ID – including both gubernatorial candidates.

Texas repeatedly ranks in the bottom of the country in regard to voter turnout. In 2012, turnout was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th in the nation.

Even though Texas is now 54.1 percent minority, making it one of four majority-minority states in the country, our Legislature and our Congressional delegation does not reflect that diversity.

That is why I am honored to participate in this campaign to increase voter engagement in our community.

I want my constituents’ voices to be heard by making sure they’re registered to vote. Thank you.

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Remembering Mickey Leland

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the untimely passing of Congressman Mickey Leland. While leading a relief mission to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, his plane went down in remote mountains, killing him, his staff, and a group of international leaders.

Mickey was my boss, my mentor, and my dear friend. He died as he lived, trying to end world hunger and serving as a voice for the voiceless. His story is worthy of celebration and remembrance, as the values he embraced still live on a quarter of a century later.

First elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, Mickey was unlike anyone who had ever served in that body previously.  Picture an African American with an afro, platform shoes, leather shoulder bag, and bright dashiki walking around the Texas Capitol. He caused quite a stir.

By the time he got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 – replacing Barbara Jordan – he had traded in the dashiki for a business suit, but that did not change what he fought for. He used his position in Washington to shine the spotlight on the plight of the powerless in this world.

Mickey Leland Ethiopia

Mickey had a motto, quoted from the Talmud: “If you save one life, you save the world.” He put that motto in practice, fighting to bridge the differences in our society, expand diversity, and end world hunger.

One of the first things he did in Congress was create a program that has sent hundreds of students from his congressional district to Israel during the summer of their junior year of high school, helping to broaden their perspective of the world.

He also began an internship program to start casting the net for more minority students to get involved in government service – one that I emulated through the Texas Legislative Internship Program.  Mickey opened the door to students interested in the system and helped them get their foot in the door for training and experience.  His efforts helped change lives, and also – in small ways – helped change the culture and complexion of the professional staff in Congress.

It was also his staff that ended up changing my life. I met Licia Green at an event in DC with Mickey. She later moved to Houston to run his district office, we fell in love and got married, and the rest is history.

But the cause that came to define Mickey was the plight of Africa, particularly the children of the continent. He talked frequently and eloquently about how this issue became his defining cause. On a trip to the Sudan in 1984, he watched a young girl die of starvation right before his eyes. He said he saw her face every day.

He knew something had to be done, and he was in a position to do something about it. He worked hard to expand ties and increase aid to the nations of Africa. He championed anti-hunger efforts and helped expand U.S. aid to Ethiopia during the famine in 1985. He traveled frequently to Ethiopia and across Africa and put into practice his deep belief that we are supposed to help “the least of our brothers.”

I still miss Mickey every day, but the lessons that he taught me will always guide my public service.

He taught me that there are no lost causes or unwinnable fights.   He taught me that patience, cooperation, and dedication are the small but vital steps of progress.

He taught me that change comes in constant and consistent action, not in one fell swoop.  He taught me that we are responsible not just for ourselves and our families, not just for our friends or neighbors, but for the people and children of the world.

And he taught me that we can all make a difference if we simply choose to get involved and take a stand.

So I am using the anniversary of Mickey’s passing as a moment to rededicate myself to the values that he espoused: courage, compassion, and a commitment to all people.  I hope today’s solemn occasion will cause more to follow his lead.

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Statement from Sen. Ellis on 49th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“Today marks the 49th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing into law the Social Security Act Amendments, which established Medicare and Medicaid,” said Senator Ellis.  “For decades, Medicare and Medicaid have been providing invaluable health care coverage, preventative services, and peace of mind to our most vulnerable populations including children, seniors, people with disabilities, and pregnant women.”

“Just like Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act or ‘Obamacare’ is a great step toward universal access to affordable health care, and it has helped millions of uninsured receive the care they need and deserve.  Texas stands to benefit greatly as nearly one in four lack health care coverage.  While over 700,000 Texans selected a plan through the Healthcare Marketplace, more work needs to be done to help insure the more than 5 million Texans that still lack quality, affordable health insurance.”

“On the day President Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law, he quoted President Harry Truman from a generation earlier: ‘Millions of our citizens do not now have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness. And the time has now arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and to help them get that protection.’”

“Texas has a historic opportunity to finally do something about its dismal numbers by closing the coverage gap, but, instead, our state’s leadership simply chooses to say ‘no.’ As a result, about a million low-income adults in Texas are left with no real option.”

“Expanding Medicaid simply secures federal aid for what cities and counties pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms.  Accepting the $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap in affordable healthcare options available to our constituents is just common sense.  I will continue to do my part to advocate for Medicaid expansion to ensure that we are creating a Texas where all families have the opportunity to be healthy and successful.”

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Statement from Sen. Ellis on Fifth Circuit’s decision in favor of Confederate license plates

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to yesterday’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit split decision ruling that Texas must issue Confederate battle flag license plates:

“I’m extremely disappointed that the state of Texas has been ordered to issue license plates with the Confederate battle flag,” said Ellis.  “The battle flag is a symbol of Ku Klux Klan repression and violence, not heritage.  After all, the battle flag never flew over the Texas Capitol and is not one of the Six Flags of Texas. It was instead adopted by the Klan and segregationists as their symbol of hate and opposition to civil rights and equality in the South.  This is not a symbol that is worthy of the state’s honor.”

“I urge General Abbott to immediately appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court so that Texas is not put in the position of issuing state-sanctioned license plates glorifying oppression and bigotry.”

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