Newsroom

Sen. Ellis to urge Waller County to enact criminal justice reforms

(Houston, TX) // Tomorrow, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) will speak to the Waller County Commissioners Court regarding the county’s criminal justice system, urging reforms to the county’s indigent defense system in response to Sandra Bland’s tragic death while in custody at the Waller County Jail.

“In light of the continued litigation and community unrest involving the untimely death of Sandra Bland, I am encouraged Waller County is taking the initiative to examine their indigent defense system,” said Sen. Ellis. “Many of the students at Prairie View A&M University come from my Senate district, and I want to ensure that my constituents, rich or poor, have equal access to justice regardless of whether they’re at school or back home in Houston.”

“The unfortunate reality is that the quality of justice one receives is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford,” continued Sen. Ellis. “That’s why reforms to the indigent defense system are so crucial.”

In particular, Sen. Ellis will urge Waller County to focus on three key reforms:

  1. Reducing unnecessary pre-trial incarceration. More than 60 percent of people in Texas jails, and more than 75 percent of the people housed in Waller County Jail, aren’t there because they’ve been convicted of a crime. Instead, they’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to get out. An individual’s danger to the community should determine whether they stay behind bars awaiting trial – not their wealth.
  2. Providing counsel early. The US Constitution requires that all persons have the right to counsel, and Texas law requires that requests for counsel be acted on and attorneys appointed in a timely manner. Respecting these rights is especially critical for people who are distressed or may be suffering some mental illness.
  3. Pursuing a more coordinated approach to indigent defense through a public defender office. Most Texas counties, including Waller County, utilize a court-appointed counsel system where a judge chooses your lawyer if you’re poor and even decides whether an attorney gets resources to investigate a case. This creates an inherent conflict. Public defenders, on the other hand, improve the quality of representation because they are independent of the judiciary and provide an institutional infrastructure like a prosecutor’s office.

Also speaking before the Commissioners Court will be James Bethke, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC). TIDC is a permanent standing committee of the Texas Judicial Council that provides financial and technical support to counties to develop and maintain quality, cost-effective indigent defense systems that meet the needs of local communities and the requirements of the Constitution and state law. Mr. Bethke will discuss TIDC’s upcoming review of the Waller County indigent defense system.

On September 29, 2015, Sen. Ellis  joined with Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Ron Reynolds to write TIDC and request that the Commission “conduct a thorough indigent defense program assessment in Waller County … [because] Waller County is home to one of the largest historically black universities in Texas, where many of our constituents attend.”

What:       Waller County Commissioner’s Court meeting

When:       Wednesday, February 10, 9:00 am

Where:     Waller County Courthouse, 836 Austin St, Hempstead, TX 77445

###

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Honored and humbled to be named Texan of the Year

Dear Friend,

I am honored and humbled that the Dallas Morning News named me Texan of the Year, along with Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, for our work on criminal justice reform. I have dedicated much of my legislative career to closing the gap between our nation’s constitutional promise of equal justice for all and the reality of disparate justice that persists to this day, so the recognition of my colleagues’ and my work is truly appreciated.

The article talks about our commitment to seeking justice by working together and rallying both sides of the aisle to our cause. It provides information on how we have been able to sway skeptics and advance reforms in a legislature that, historically, has been more about being “tough on crime” than “smart on crime.”

DMNAbout my efforts, the News wrote: “The measures [Ellis] 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.”

Texas has made significant steps toward improving its criminal justice system in recent years, and what we have accomplished is a testament to years of hard work and dedication on our part, as well as our staffs, advocates, and fellow members.

But we have a long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve. Just this week, it was announced that “a record-setting 149 men and women were exonerated last year after spending an average of 14.5 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit … [and] Texas again topped the list of overturned convictions, with more than one-third of the total.”

There are essential advances Texas needs to make to ensure we have evidence and results we can trust in our justice system, including requiring the recording of interrogations to improve the reliability of confessions and establishing better scientific standards for what we accept as evidence in our courtrooms.

youtube

People should not be imprisoned simply because they are poor, so it’s imperative we fix our bail bond system to stop locking in jail folks who have yet to be convicted of a crime because they cannot afford bail.

We should establish an entity to consistently oversee and compile data on our criminal justice policies to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing crime and determine the reliability, efficiency, and fairness in their application.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It’s our responsibility, each and every one of us, working together, to dedicate ourselves to advancing the cause of equality and justice for all. We can start today, and we’ll be a better city, state and nation as a result.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

Remembering Dr. King

Dear Friend,

Today, the nation pauses to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King. Across the country, the deeds and words of this great man will be highlighted and given their rightful praise. Dr. King gave his life to the struggle of ensuring every man, woman, and child had the opportunity to achieve their own personal American Dream.

Just six days ago, I sat in chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives and listened to President Barack Obama give his final State of the Union Address. U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson invited me as her guest, and it was a privilege and pleasure to hear the President defend his legacy and lay out the challenges and opportunities that America will face in coming years.

President Obama’s election and re-election are testaments to the battles King waged to create a better, more inclusive, and freer America and the product of the struggle he and countless thousands endured. His efforts played an essential part in making it possible for someone who looks like me to be elected President of the United States. King’s work provided the foundation for change that continues to this day.

As President Obama spoke, I was reminded about how far we’ve come as a country in the seven years of his presidency. America has enjoyed 70 months in a row of private sector job growth, creating more than 14 million new jobs. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more than 17 million Americans have health care coverage they didn’t previously have, no one can be turned away for preexisting conditions, and our country’s uninsured rate is the lowest ever recorded. Today, Americans are free to marry the person they love, proving that all of us – and our marriages – are created equal.

But there’s still much more to accomplish.

During the State of the Union, President Obama outlined the policy proposals that he intends to pursue over the next year: “Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work. Paid leave. Raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families. They’re still the right thing to do.”

The President is right. We need to keep America moving forward by pursuing Dr. King’s goal of “equality of opportunity” and economic justice – building an economy that gives everyone a fair shot. That requires affordable higher education, increasing the minimum wage, and closing wasteful corporate loopholes that make the tax system blatantly unfair for the average family.

We need to renew the protections in one of Dr. King’s most enduring successes: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices and upheld the principle of one person/one vote in this country. Yet, the voting rights advances secured by Dr. King and thousands of others are still under attack today through controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts aimed at suppressing the vote.

We need further investments in clean air, water, and energy to protect the safety, security, and health of our children and grandchildren. Dr. King’s legacy helped give birth to the environmental justice movement, which promotes the right to a clean environment for all people, no matter where you live or how much you earn.

As President Lyndon Johnson said, “[y]esterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.” Dr. King and thousands of others risked their lives for the ideal that all men are created equal and changed America – and the world – for the better.

But that does not mean the work is done. The vast majority of Americans have not reached the mountain top, and it is the job of public policymakers to ensure everyone has access to the tools necessary to make the climb.

Today, let us rededicate ourselves to his call to action to shed light on inequality and demand justice for all. Dr. King’s dream is alive and well in our community today, and I am grateful to all who fight alongside me to ensure it is realized.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Liberty and Justice For All

Yesterday, the LBJ Foundation, on which I serve, awarded its most prestigious prize, the LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award, to former President Jimmy Carter in recognition of his leadership in public service and his tireless efforts toward peace and human rights. What a privilege it was to be with President and Mrs. Carter!

The LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award honors those, like President Carter, who personify Johnson’s belief that the mission of public service is “to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.” At age 91, President Carter epitomizes Johnson’s passion for justice and dream of bridging racial and economic divides.

Though Johnson and Carter never met, as governor of Georgia, Carter wrote former President Johnson a handwritten note in December 1972, after a Civil Rights Symposium Johnson had convened at his presidential library. It read in part, “I have long admired you personally and deeply appreciate your tremendous and unprecedented achievements as president.” Johnson died a month later.

“It is a great personal honor to be given the Liberty & Justice for All Award in the name of Lyndon Johnson, a man who helped shape my life and for whom I have the greatest admiration and appreciation,” said Carter.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, he appointed a record number of minorities to high federal positions, created the Department of Education, strengthened Social Security, and negotiated a historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, which remains in place today.

Carter is one of four American presidents to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2002, and the only one to do so as a former president. The recognition furthered his international reputation as a humanitarian and peace broker.

You can see more photos from the event by clicking here.


Do you have health insurance?

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act – or “Obamacare” – millions of uninsured Americans now have access to new health insurance options through a Health Insurance Marketplace. If you don’t have health insurance, you have about two weeks to check out available coverage options atwww.healthcare.gov and select a plan before this year’s open enrollment ends on January 31.

We will all get sick at some point in time, and access to health insurance is a critical part of ensuring that individuals and families are healthy and successful. Plus, if you are eligible and don’t enroll in coverage by January 31, you might have to pay a fine at tax time of $695 dollars per person or 2.5% of your income, whichever is more.

Many people are able to get a plan that works for them and is not too expensive because financial help is available for individuals who make between $11,670 – $46,680 and between $23,850 – $95,400 for a family of four. According to estimates for Houston, a 27 year old with an income of $25,000 might be able to purchase coverage with assistance for as a low as $81 per month. A family of four with an income of $50,000 may be able to get coverage for $52 per month after tax credits.

These plans purchased on the exchange will have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care – ensuring consumers get comprehensive coverage instead of a bare bones policy.

Information about these new health insurance plans, where to get in-person assistance, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found atwww.healthcare.gov or by calling 1-800-318-2596.

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with: , ,

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.

Posted in: News Articles • Tagged with:

Sen. Ellis statement on passing of Commissioner El Franco Lee

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement on the passing of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee:

“I’m shocked and saddened by the tragic passing of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee,” said Ellis. “El Franco was a personal friend and mentor – someone I always turned to when considering big decisions in my life, so I’ll miss him greatly.”

“His legacy will be that of public service, as he was always a stalwart advocate for Harris County and Precinct One. He positively impacted the lives of countless residents each year, whether through the Street Olympics, public park upgrades, or senior programs. El Franco used the power of his office for the greater public good, and our community is better off thanks to his dedication and desire to serve.”

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

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.”

Posted in: News Articles • Tagged with:

Sen. Ellis statement on the death of Joe Jamail

Senator Rodney Ellis released the following statement about the death of Joe Jamail:

“Joe Jamail was a larger than life legend, and I’m saddened by his passing. I’ve known Joe for decades, and I’m honored to be able to call him a friend.

Three things stick out to me about Joe that show his dedication to civil rights and his desire to help future generations of Texans. First, when the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University was formally named after the Supreme Court Justice in 1976, Joe chartered a plane to fly Justice Marshall down. This ensured Justice Marshall could honor the school and Houston with his presence just as they honored him.

1024x1024

Second, when Joe wanted to find a home for his $3 million law library with more than 1000 volumes, he asked me to work with Texas Southern to make the arrangements so that future generations of TSU students would be able to benefit from the knowledge he acquired over the years. In fact, Joe actually hired the first African American law graduate from TSU, so his involvement with the school goes back some time.

Finally, when Joe spoke at the Texas Southern commencement in 2013, his message concentrated on the pursuit of equality – equality between races, between sexes, and between rich and poor. He spoke about making a difference for good. He could speak freely about that because it was something he practiced.

Texas is a better place thanks to the hard work and dedication to breaking down barriers that Joe pursued throughout the years. Rest in peace, Joe Jamail.”

Posted in: Press Releases

Happy Thanksgiving

Dear Friend,

Today is about more than the traditional feast – it’s about giving thanks. As I count my blessings today, the honor of serving as the State Senator from District 13 is close to the top. I want to thank my constituents, family, colleagues, and staff for making my time in public service meaningful in so many ways.

I pledge to continue fighting for the families of District 13 to make Texas a great place to live, work, and raise a family. Texans deserve a state that gives its residents a fair shot at a good-paying job to support their family, offers all children access to quality educational opportunities, and provides every family access to affordable and quality health care.

I wish you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Time for schools to end suspension-first mindset

This ran as an op-ed in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle. Click here to view it on the Chronicle’s website.

Before they know the ABCs or how to tie their own shoes, thousands of four-year-olds in Texas are suspended from school each year, forced out of the classroom and denied the opportunity to learn.

A report issued this month by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed brought the issue into focus: more than 88,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students in Texas in the 2013-14 school year alone.

unnamed(2)
Recently, the Houston ISD Board of Education voted on a proposed rule change that would have ended suspensions for children in second grade and younger, except as required by law, and limited removals for third through fifth graders. Teachers would still have the ability under state law to remove a student from the classroom for repeated or seriously disruptive behaviors. HISD’s proposal also provided funds and training for educators in proven, alternative discipline methods that improve classroom safety and educational opportunities for all students.

A vote in favor of the proposal would have solidified HISD’s position as a leader in positive, forward-thinking education and school safety policies.

Unfortunately, the Board rejected the full proposal and instead supported a weakened version that effectively maintains the status quo for how our schools approach suspending our youngest children.

Unwarranted suspensions and other removals from school hurt students. When children, particularly young children, are arbitrarily suspended from school, they miss important learning and socializing time with their teachers and peers, they learn that the way to handle conflict is to push it away and ignore it, and they begin to believe they are bad children who do not deserve help. They realize that whenever they want a day off of school, they simply act out until they get sent home. The consequence can therefore reinforce the bad behavior the school is actually trying to prevent.

unnamed3
Suspensions also don’t improve classroom outcomes for the rest of the students. An American Psychological Association task force points out that research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension … and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.”

Out-of-school suspensions often have the greatest impact on Texas’ working families. When a young child is sent home, someone must be there to watch him or her. Parents are forced to take time off of work and put their jobs in jeopardy. Stories of family members losing their jobs because a young student is suspended are regrettably not that rare.

If studies indicated that suspending our youngest students resulted in improved outcomes, it would make sense to continue with the status quo. But research shows the opposite, as classroom removals for young children can lead to even more significant problems down the road. Studies show that early removals increase the likelihood of suspensions in higher grades, which then increase the odds of being held back a grade, dropping out of school altogether, and entering the juvenile justice system.

What’s more, Texas Appleseed’s research shows classroom removals are issued disproportionately to certain groups of students. Black children, boys, and students who receive special education services are punished at disproportionately higher rates compared to their peers, but those rates are most alarming for black students. Black children make up 26 percent of students in HISD but represent 67 percent of pre-k out-of-school suspensions. Seventy percent of the pre-k through second graders suspended in HISD are black boys.

Fortunately, there are proven, evidence-based alternatives to a system over reliant on out-of-school suspensions. HISD’s proposal includes a robust, tiered system of behavioral interventions that can be used as alternatives to classroom removals. A staff of twenty-five trainers and sixty school psychologists would be trained in research-based methodologies, which they would then pass along to teachers, staff, and administrators at all HISD elementary schools. Behavioral interventionists would be available to provide further assistance and referrals to external agencies to any campuses that request them.

Sometimes opportunities to make sweeping change can seem rare. But this instance provides our community a unique chance to adapt our schools’ discipline policies in a way that will help the youngest students stay in the classroom. I remain hopeful that at the upcoming December meeting the Houston ISD Board of Education will support a ban on out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest children.


Now is the time to plan for climate change

The science is clear: the world is getting hotter. Scientists announced that 2014 was the hottest year on record, and 2001-10 was the hottest decade on record. There is convincing evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been exacerbated by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. 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.

unnamed(3)
For the past four sessions, I’ve filed legislation to require 12 state agencies to produce climate adaptation plans every four years assessing each agency’s role with respect to climate change. Each climate adaptation plan must include: an assessment of vulnerability; how existing programs will be impacted; specific mitigation steps; budget impacts of mitigation; potential funding sources for mitigation steps; a statewide strategy to monitor the continuing effects of climate change; and a written statement by the Texas state climatologist regarding the adequacy of the scientific basis of the plan.

The bills haven’t passed, but I pledge to continue the fight. Plain and simple, it’s a bad business practice to not manage risk and uncertainty. With millions of lives and billions of dollars relying on sound state policies, the lack of risk mitigation around climate change exacerbates future economic uncertainty and sets the state up for potentially destructive surprises.

Organizations of all kinds – whether in the public, private, or non-profit sectors – have formalized planning processes to mitigate climate change impacts because planning is a prudent business practice. Adaptation plans would give Texas state agencies a roadmap to contend with unknown future climate conditions and help minimize their impact.

Click here to read a recent Houston Chronicle article on my efforts at the Capitol.


Do you have health insurance?

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act – or “Obamacare” – millions of uninsured Americans now have access to new health insurance options through a Health Insurance Marketplace at www.healthcare.gov. This is great news for Texas, as our state has the highest uninsured rate in the nation with nearly one in five lacking coverage – around 5 million people. In Harris County, almost 1 in 3 people are without health insurance coverage.

Health insurance billboard 2015 - small
Beyond the benefit for my constituents and community, I’m personally grateful for Obamacare, as it has allowed my oldest daughter, Nicole, to get health insurance while she attends school in New York. She’s more than 26 years old and is no longer able to be covered under my health care plan.

If you don’t have health insurance, you now have an opportunity to enroll in coverage, as the marketplace opened again on November 1, 2015. We will all get sick at some point in time, and access to health insurance is a critical part of ensuring that individuals and families are healthy and successful. Plus, if you are eligible and don’t enroll in coverage by January 31st, you might have to pay a fine at tax time of $695 dollars per person or 2.5% of your income, whichever is more.

Many people are able to get a plan that works for them and is not too expensive because financial help is available for individuals who make between $11,670-$46,680 and between $23,850-$95,400 for a family of four.

According to estimates for Houston, a 27 year old with an income of $25,000 might be able to purchase coverage with assistance for as a low as $81 per month. A family of four with an income of $50,000 may be able to get coverage for $52 per month after tax credits.

v>These plans purchased on the exchange will have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care – ensuring consumers get comprehensive coverage instead of a bare bones policy.

Information about these new health insurance plans, where to get in-person assistance, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found at www.healthcare.gov or by calling 1-800-318-2596. Remember, the deadline for enrolling is January 31, 2016.

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with: , ,

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.

Posted in: News Articles • Tagged with:

Ellis: School policies must shift from suspend-first mindset

Before they know the ABCs or how to tie their own shoes, thousands of 4-year-olds in Texas are suspended from school each year, forced out of the classroom and denied the opportunity to learn.

A report issued this month by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed brought the issue into focus: more than 88,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students in Texas in the 2013-14 school year alone.

Recently, the Houston Independent School District’s board of education voted on a proposed rule change that would have ended suspensions for children in second grade and younger, except as required by law, and limited removals for third- through fifth-graders. Teachers would still have the ability under state law to remove a student from the classroom for repeated or seriously disruptive behaviors. HISD’s proposal also provided funds and training for educators in proven, alternative discipline methods that improve classroom safety and educational opportunities for all students.

A vote in favor of the proposal would have solidified HISD’s position as a leader in positive, forward-thinking education and school safety policies.

Unfortunately, the school board rejected the full proposal and instead supported a weakened version that effectively maintains the status quo for how our schools approach suspending our youngest children.

Unwarranted suspensions and other removals from school hurt students. When children, particularly young children, are arbitrarily suspended from school, they miss important learning and socializing time with their teachers and peers, they learn that the way to handle conflict is to push it away and ignore it, and they begin to believe they are bad children who do not deserve help. They realize that whenever they want a day off of school, they simply act out until they get sent home. The consequence can therefore reinforce the bad behavior the school is actually trying to prevent.

Suspensions also don’t improve classroom outcomes for the rest of the students. An American Psychological Association task force points out that research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension … and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.”

Out-of-school suspensions often have the greatest impact on Texas’ working families. When a young child is sent home, someone must be there to watch him or her. Parents are forced to take time off of work and put their jobs in jeopardy. Stories of family members losing their jobs because a young student is suspended are regrettably not that rare.

If studies indicated that suspending our youngest students resulted in improved outcomes, it would make sense to continue with the status quo. But research shows the opposite, as classroom removals for young children can lead to even more significant problems down the road. Studies show that early removals increase the likelihood of suspensions in higher grades, which then increase the odds of being held back a grade, dropping out of school altogether and entering the juvenile justice system.

What’s more, Texas Appleseed’s research shows classroom removals are issued disproportionately to certain groups of students. Black children, boys, and students who receive special education services are punished at disproportionately higher rates compared to their peers, but those rates are most alarming for black students. Black children make up 26 percent of students in HISD but represent 67 percent of Pre-K out-of-school suspensions. Seventy percent of the pre-K through second graders suspended in HISD are black boys.

Fortunately, there are proven, evidence-based alternatives to a system over-reliant on out-of-school suspensions. HISD’s proposal includes a robust, tiered system of behavioral interventions that can be used as alternatives to classroom removals. A staff of 25 trainers and 60 school psychologists would be trained in research-based methodologies, which they would then pass along to teachers, staff and administrators at all HISD elementary schools. Behavioral interventionists would be available to provide further assistance and referrals to external agencies to any campuses that request them.

Sometimes opportunities to make sweeping change can seem rare. But this instance provides our community a unique chance to adapt our schools’ discipline policies in a way that will help the youngest students stay in the classroom. I remain hopeful that at the upcoming December meeting the HISD school board will support a ban on out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest children.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with: ,