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Senator Ellis responds to Supreme Court striking down HB 2

(Houston, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down HB 2, which enacted unconstitutional limits on Texas women’s access to safe abortion access:

“Today marks a win for Texans, but the fight does not end today,” said Senator Ellis. “Legislative opponents of reproductive freedom want to make it virtually impossible for Texas women to seek safe, legal health care without having to face the political consequences of trying to ban all abortions. HB 2 was a cynical, destructive but – gladly – uneffective strategy.”

Ellis continued: “With the Court striking down HB 2, this represents first step in dismantling medically unnecessary laws aimed at making it harder for people to exercise their rights. All women deserve the respect and dignity to make their own health care decisions without bringing Big Government into what should be a very personal and private matter between a woman, her doctor, and her faith.”

“Finally, I want to give immense credit to Senator Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster against a version of HB 2 brought national attention to Texas’ attempts to pass unconstitutional limitations on a woman’s right and ability to make decisions about their health, family, and future. I still have your back, Wendy!”

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Senator Ellis reacts to Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. UT

(Houston, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Fisher v. UT case:

“I am extremely pleased that the Supreme Court recognized that we cannot afford to roll back the clock on a half century of progress,” said Senator Ellis. “This ruling ensures that the well-established use of affirmative action to ensure diversity on campuses can be maintained, while at the same time guaranteeing that laws providing equal opportunity for all will not be tossed aside en masse.”

Ellis continued: “Late last year, I organized 52 other members of the Texas Legislature to sign an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas’ holistic, individualized admissions process. The brief reflected the members’ ‘obligation to be aware of demographics so that we can ensure, as we must, that visibly open pathways to leadership and opportunity exist for all Texas citizens.’ I am very pleased that a majority of the Court agreed with our analysis.”

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Happy Juneteenth and Father’s Day!

Dear Friend,

Today we celebrate Juneteenth and Father’s Day, two distinct, important holidays that hold a special place in our lives. Both represent a day of reflection and pride in our past and renewal and hope for our future.

Juneteenth signifies the day the message of freedom was delivered to the enslaved people of Texas – a message of freedom that was long overdue. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all enslaved black Americans free. Union troops never made any significant intrusion into Texas during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s proclamation was lost on the ears of enslaved black Texans for over two years. For this reason, Texas celebrates a date of emancipation separate from most other former slave states.

Juneteenth is a reminder that freedom is always worth celebrating. When the most oppressed heard of their freedom, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation, it must have sounded like the sweetest of songs.

So today we remember. We remember the lives that were stolen and the part of our past that must never be repeated. But today we also celebrate the restored freedom that was taken away from far too many.

We also honor African Americans’ contribution to the history of Texas. Later this summer, construction will begin on the Texas African American History Memorial on the Capitol grounds – the end result of more than 20 years of work.

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The monument will serve as a physical testament to the long role African Americans have played in building our state. The central element is a male and female slave having broken the bonds of slavery, looking forward to a future of freedom and justice and holding the Emancipation Proclamation. This portion is dedicated to the 182,500 slaves that were freed on June 19, 1865. Click here to see detailed images of the monument.

Last week, I met with the Texas State Preservation Board to discuss the location of the monument on the Capitol grounds and receive an update on its progress, and I was pleased to learn that the work is on schedule.

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Stay tuned for more information about the unveiling of the monument later this year.

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Today is also Father’s Day. I am so blessed that my father, Eligha Ellis, is still with us at age 94.

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With my dad and my oldest daughter, Nicole, in 1988
When I was young, I applied that lesson to my education, and today it guides my public service. Alzheimer’s has taken its toll on him in recent years, but his presence serves as a daily reminder of the countless lessons he’s passed along throughout my life. More than anything, he taught me the value of hard work and that success comes to those who are willing to put in the time and effort. Of course, as the son of a yard man and a maid, hard work was a basic part of daily life for my parents – so that message came equally from Mom and Dad!

I also emphasize the value of hard work to my children, recognizing that one of the best ways to honor my father is to pass along to his grandchildren the perseverance that he instilled in me.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis statement on Orlando tragedy

(Houston, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement on the mass shooting in Orlando:

“I offer my sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who were impacted by today’s senseless violence in Orlando. More than ever, it is clear that hate can kill. All of us have a responsibility to join together in a unified response against hatred directed at any group – whether it’s because of what you look like, where you were born, or who you love.”

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Sen. Ellis reacts to Supreme Court agreeing to hear Duane Buck’s appeal

(Houston, TX) // Today, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Duane Buck’s appeal of his death penalty sentence handed down in 1997. Mr. Buck was condemned to death after his own trial attorneys introduced testimony and a report from a psychologist stating that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Senator Ellis offers the following response:

“I am encouraged to see the U.S. Supreme Court take up Duane Buck’s case,” said Senator Ellis. “The people of Texas deserve a justice system based on the core principles of equal justice under the law that is free from racial prejudice and discrimination – particularly when it involves the ultimate punishment.”

Ellis continued: “There is no doubt that racist ‘expert’ testimony was involved in sentencing Buck to death. I hope the Supreme Court will correct this egregious and indefensible error and grant a new sentencing hearing free of racial bias. That said, Harris County can fix this problem now by simply agreeing to a new sentencing hearing.”

On May 9, Senator Ellis joined with 31 other Texas legislators and sent a letter urging Harris County to agree to a sentencing hearing for Buck. That letter can be found here.

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It’s time to fix what’s broken

Dear Friend:

Two weeks ago, Harris County was sued to overturn an unconstitutional bail system that is jailing people just because they are poor. I stood with area leaders and advocates like the Texas Organizing Project and urged the county to work with all parties to fix the problem and settle the case – rather than use our tax dollars to defend this morally indefensible system.

It’s unfortunate that, despite repeated warnings and attempts to work with the County, this lawsuit was absolutely necessary. It’s necessary to protect the rights of Harris County residents who are kept in a modern day debtor’s prison – locked up because they’re poor. It’s necessary to save taxpayer dollars that are paying to ship inmates out of our overcrowded jail. And it’s necessary to spur needed reforms.

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Click above to watch Sen. Ellis discuss needed bail reforms


The County’s failure to follow the law and principles of basic fairness when it comes to pre-trial bond and bail practices has translated into more than 70 percent of the jail population consisting of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. The vast majority of those people are stuck in jail solely because they are poor – not because they are threat to public safety.

So we’ve created two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. A system that keeps the Sandra Blands of the world, arrested for minor offenses, locked in cages with their lives at risk. And another that lets the Robert Dursts, arrested for murder, walk free just because they’re wealthy.

It’s a violation of our basic constitutional legal principles and our moral principles of justice. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On April 25, I sent a letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, Sheriff Ron Hickman, and Presiding Judge Susan Brown, urging them to advance more effective and efficient approaches to public safety that are proven to make our communities safer, reduce the County’s jail population creating significant savings for taxpayers, and result in fairer and more equitable treatment of our residents.

  • Let’s implement a program like Seattle’s successful LEAD program, which diverts non-violent, low-level drug users to community programs instead of jail.
  • Let’s reform our failed bail bond system so that we don’t have a jail where 70 percent of the inmates are sitting there merely because they can’t afford bail.
  • Let’s increase the use of personal recognizance bonds so that folks can maintain employment and support their family before trial.
  • Let’s actually take into consideration – like state law requires – the ability of someone to afford the bail amount before it’s set.

What was the response to this push for criminal justice reforms? Commissioner Steve Radack called me out by my name and told me to “shut up” about this issue. 

Here’s my promise: as long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that puts people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.

I’m going to speak up for the people and the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by a Commissioner into going along to get along, regardless of where my public service takes me.

Click here to read several articles about last week’s events.

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A new opportunity for reform: the MacArthur Foundation Grant

In late April, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted to approve a plan to reform the county’s criminal justice system, including accepting a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. As described by the Foundation, the grant is “part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative supported by the Foundation with an initial $75 million to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails” and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

I first brought the grant opportunity to the attention of the Harris County Commissioners Court via a March 10, 2015, letter to the late Commissioner El Franco Lee, then Chairman of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In the letter, I urged Commissioner Lee to “consider taking advantage of this opportunity to build upon the progress you made improving public safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of justice in Harris County.”

The county’s plan is a first step toward improving our broken criminal justice system, but the plan disappointingly fails to address the most serious issues including smart-on-crime alternatives for low-level, non-violent drug possession offenses, our bail bond system, and pre-trial release reform.

As the largest county in Texas housing the fourth largest city in the nation, Harris County should be at forefront of advancing a fairer justice system that ensures the innocent are protected, the guilty brought to justice, and all its residents are treated equally and fairly under the law.

With the MacArthur grant, we have a unique opportunity to fix our broken criminal justice system. So let’s do more. I don’t want to sell ourselves short and end up with some of the same racial and income disparities that plague our system today.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Flooding update

Our region continues to be slammed with heavy rains, resulting in more flooding affecting thousands of residents. Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.

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Please note that individuals must apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance by Friday, June 24, 2016, to receive aid. The four recovery centers will be open from 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:

  • Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX 77074
  • Greenspoint Commercial Office Building, 16800 Imperial Valley Dr. Houston, TX 77060
  • Cypress Creek Christian Church and Community Center, 6823 Cypresswood Dr. Spring, TX 77379
  • Lone Star College Cy-Fair Library, 9191 Barker Rd, Cypress, TX 77433

Come prepared! Applicants will be asked to provide:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the damaged primary residence
  • Description of the damage
  • Information about insurance coverage
  • Current contact telephone number
  • Address where they can receive mail
  • Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds

Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers, by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov, or by calling 1-800-621-3362. If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.

Do you need legal assistance?

The State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA are providing assistance to survivors who need help dealing with issues related to the flooding but have no means to hire a lawyer. A confidential, toll-free hotline (1-800-504-7030) is available 24/7 to help low income individuals with legal assistance on issues such as:

  • Life, medical, and property insurance claims
  • Landlord-tenant problems
  • FEMA and other government benefits available to disaster survivors
  • Help with home repair contracts/contractors
  • Replacement of wills and/or other legal documents lost or destroyed in the disaster
  • Consumer protection issues such as contractor scams
  • Mortgage-foreclosure problems

Additionally, Lonestar Legal Aid is offering free legal assistance to those who qualify.  Please review criteria for obtaining free legal aid by visiting www.lonestarlegal.org or calling 1-800-733-8394.

Texas Workforce Commission Unemployment Assistance

Individuals can apply for benefits by calling a TWC Tele-Center Monday through Friday between 8 am and 5 pm at 1-800-939-6631.

Additional resources can be found at www.houstonrecovers.org.


Graduation certificates

For many students, the end of May indicates the conclusion of a school year and the start of summer vacation. But for some lucky students, the end of their school year is especially exciting because they will soon be graduating from high school. I was extremely pleased to learn that 7,884 students in Senate District 13 will be graduating this year. I congratulated these accomplished youths by sending each graduate a congratulatory certificate applauding them for their hard work and dedication.

Along with the certificate, I included a voter registration card to encourage them to exercise their right to vote. I want to make it one step easier for people of all ages in my district to exercise their constitutional right to vote and have their voice heard at the ballot box.

I’m so proud of these students for accomplishing the important milestone of high school graduation. Congratulations to all of the graduates across Texas!

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Sen. Ellis responds to Harris County Commissioner Radack

(Houston, TX) // On Tuesday, Commissioner Steve Radack said during a public session of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court that Senator Rodney Ellis should “shut up” about criminal justice reform. Click here and scroll to the 30 second mark of the Executive Session.

 Today, Senator Ellis offers the following response:

“In an outburst more in the style of Donald Trump rather than the more staid Commissioner’s Court, Commissioner Radack called me out by name and told me to ‘shut up’ about criminal justice reforms in our community,” said Senator Ellis. “As long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up.”

Ellis continued: “I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that keeps people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.”

“This isn’t an argument about statistics –  it’s an argument about whether or not Harris County continues to needlessly destroy lives, jeopardize our communities, and waste taxpayer dollars with its broken justice system. I’m going to speak up for all people and especially the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by any Commissioner, regardless of where my public service takes me.”

“I challenge Commissioner Radack to sit down for a public debate about the criminal justice reforms needed in our community.”

 

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Sen. Ellis reacts to lawsuit against Harris County’s broken criminal justice system

(Houston, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding the lawsuit brought against Harris County due to its broken criminal justice system:

“Harris County’s overreliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses continues to result in some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the U.S. and the world. It’s an approach that wastes countless taxpayer dollars, has been ineffective at making our communities safer, and has a particularly devastating effect on communities of color and the poor.
 
The County’s continued failure to follow the law and principles of basic fairness when it comes to pre-trial bond and bail practices has translated into more than 70% of the jail population consisting of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. A vast majority of those people are stuck in jail solely because they are poor, not because they are threat to public safety. We’ve created two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. A system that keeps the Sandra Blands of the world, arrested for minor offenses, locked in cages with their lives at risk, and lets the Robert Dursts, arrested for murder, walk free. It’s a violation of our basic constitutional legal principles and our moral principles of justice.
 
It doesn’t have to be this way. Someone’s danger to the community should determine bail, not their wealth. The county can start fixing the this broken bail system and advancing a fair, effective, and efficient justice system today by simply following pre-trial services recommendations, requiring risk assessments, and utilizing proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk arrestees like personal bonds, electronic monitoring, or simple check-ins. The county must also use more PR bonds, cease using a bail schedule, comply with Texas law, and assign counsel at magistration.

It’s unfortunate the County has failed to act on its own, despite repeated warnings and attempts from advocates and elected officials to work with them. I stand with the plaintiffs who brought this lawsuit and hope to be County Commissioner next January so that I can help take action to fix our broken justice system.

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Houston leaders speak out on school finance decision and treating all Texas students with dignity

(Houston, TX) // Today, Houston leaders held a press conference at Sen. Rodney Ellis’ office to discuss the Texas Supreme Court’s school finance decision and the state’s response to the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance to prevent discrimination against transgender students.

On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court issued its long-awaited school finance decision, ruling that Texas’ school finance system was constitutional despite it being “undeniably imperfect with immense room for improvement,” as the decision stated. Also on Friday, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to schools on how to ensure transgender students are not subject to discrimination. That led to threats that Texas will walk away from more than $10 billion in federal education funding.

Below please find quotes for use by your publication. Photos from the press conference are available for download here.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston): “At a time when the Supreme Court admits that Texas’ school finance system is barely scraping by constitutionally, we can’t afford to walk away from $10 billion in federal funding that helps to feed and educate our state’s neediest kids. Let’s instead turn our focus to investing in our neighborhood schools and treating all of our students with the dignity they deserve.”

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Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston): “The Texas Legislature already faces the enormous challenge next session of improving our troubled school finance system during a time when state’s budget is going to be squeezed by falling oil and gas revenues. The last thing we can afford to do is forfeit $10 billion in federal funds by discriminating against innocent transgender children.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston): “The Texas Supreme Court finding that our state meets the minimum state constitutional requirements is nothing to celebrate. This is not a victory for taxpayers, this is a loss for our children. Because the Court’s opinions make it clear that there is plenty of room for improvement. It is ridiculous that we have allowed our public education system to fall so low. The Texas legislature needs to properly fund our schools ─ not just settle for meeting minimum requirements. The children of Texas deserve a system that allows them to meet the high standards we place on them.”

Rep. Coleman continued: “The President’s guidance directing schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as ─ is correct. School is particularly stressful for transgendered students. Their school should be a place where they can feel safe ─ not ostracized and discriminated against. President Obama’s guidance does not put students in danger, but losing federal funding for purely political gain will hurt students in Texas.”

Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston): “LGBT students are suffering from too much bullying as it is. We do not need the Lt. Governor acting as bully in chief. He should be focusing his energies on how to bring our state up from 38th in the nation on school spending.”

Houston ISD Board of Education Trustee Anna Eastman: “To me it’s all about this quote: ‘As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.’ It’s what I said when HISD was crafting our non-discrimination policy. I hope we all can get beyond a political battle in the media and make sure we are taking care of all of our kids, so they have safe places to learn. Transgender students who are more likely to be bullied, to be homeless, to commit suicide because they are misunderstood don’t want to hurt others, they just want the same assumption of safety and comfort most of us already have.”

Philip Fraissinet, partner with Thompson & Horton LLP: “Although the decision from the Texas Supreme Court last week may have been a technical legal victory for the state, it certainly was not a victory for the children, families, and taxpayers of Texas. Although the Supreme Court was highly critical of the current public school funding system, unfortunately the Court, for the first time in decades, decided not to hold the state accountable for meeting its constitutional obligations. It will be more important than ever for  citizens to engage the political process to ensure that this decision is not used as an excuse to backslide into an even more inadequate and inequitable funding system. Rather, families, educators, taxpayers, and all citizens must be the ones to  challenge lawmakers to make the serious structural improvements to our funding system necessary to provide all Texas children a real chance to succeed.”

Zeph Capo, President of Houston Federation of Teachers: “It’s shameful that the state continues to play politics with Texas children’s futures. The people who will suffer are the students and teachers who are doing the best they can with the crumbs that they can pull together.”

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