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

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

Dear Attorney General Lynch:

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Ellis praises Supreme Court decision on marriage equality

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to this morning’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding marriage equality:

“I am elated that marriage equality is now the law of the land, allowing loving, committed couples to formally celebrate their union. The Supreme Court took a long overdue step to recognize the human dignity of our gay and lesbian friends. No longer will they be considered second-class citizens, unable to marry the person they love. This sends a strong message to the world that equality under the law is one of the guiding principles of our nation’s Constitution.”

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Ellis: HISD schools shouldn’t honor Confederacy

On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, I sent the below letter to the chairwoman of the Houston ISD Board of Education, Rhonda Skillern-Jones:

The Honorable Rhonda Skillern-Jones
Chair, Houston ISD Board of Education
4400 West 18th Street
Houston, TX 77092

Dear Chairwoman Skillern-Jones:

This week, we have witnessed a nationwide uproar regarding the continued government support and endorsement of Confederate symbols. Their presence on the South Carolina Capitol grounds, Mississippi state flag, Virginia license plates, countless street names, and elsewhere has resulted in much-needed conversations about the appropriateness of sanctioning painful symbols of slavery and racism. These are longstanding debates that were again brought to the forefront of our national consciousness days after a white supremacist who proudly waved the Confederate battle flag brutally murdered nine Charleston parishioners solely due to the color of their skin.

As the nation collectively reexamines vestiges of a discriminatory past, I turn my eyes closer to home. By my count, at least six schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) are named after men whose notoriety stems from their fealty to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, an insurrection aimed at preserving the institution of slavery. When we name a school after someone, we send a message to our children that this individual is worthy of honor and praise. It serves as a community-wide endorsement of the person as a role model for our children to strive to embody through educational achievement.

The time has come for a change. I ask that the Board put in place a process to review and consider renaming HISD schools named after Confederate loyalists.

Remembering our past is important, especially if you want to avoid making the same mistakes. But we can teach our students about the evils of the past without endorsing the actions of those who fought to uphold them. When we honor hate at our schools, we teach hate to our children. For a large portion of HISD students, the Confederacy is a past that would have prevented them from ever attending school and made them subordinate to fellow students. Many of them would have lived in chains and been sold like chattel had the namesakes of their school been successful in the cause they espoused.

Given that the Confederacy was – in the words of Texas’ February 1861 official declaration of secession – “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity,” it is illuminating to see the current demographic makeup of the schools that bear Confederate names:

Dowling Middle School is named after Richard Dowling, a Confederate army officer. According to the most recent data from the 2013-14 school year, the school is now 57.7 percent Hispanic, 40.3 percent African American, 0.4 percent Asian, and 1.1 percent white.

Jackson Middle School is named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a brigadier general in the Confederate army. The school is now 87.6 percent Hispanic, 10.7 percent African American, 0.1 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent white.

Johnston Middle School is named after Albert Sidney Johnston, a general in the Confederate army. The school is now 49.3 percent Hispanic, 32.9 percent African American, 3.3 percent Asian, and 12.5 percent white.

Davis High School is named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. The school is now 88 percent Hispanic, 10.8 percent African American, 0.1 percent Asian, and 0.9 percent white.

Lee High School, which has notably stopped using the “Robert E.” portion of the school’s original name, is named after the commander of the Confederate army. The school is now 71.6 percent Hispanic, 15.7 percent African American, 7.8 percent Asian, and 3.7 percent white.

Reagan High School is named after John H. Reagan, postmaster general and secretary of the treasury of the Confederacy. The school is now 83.3 percent Hispanic, 8.6 percent African American, 0.5 percent Asian, and 4 percent white.

As an extremely diverse school district in the most diverse city in the nation, the names of our community schools should not lionize men who dedicated themselves to maintaining the ability of one human to own another. I hope that the Board will use this unique opportunity to move the district in a new direction and away from a discriminatory past by creating a process to review and consider renaming schools named after Confederate stalwarts.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis reacts to U.S. Supreme Court decision on Affordable Care Act

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to this morning’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the Affordable Care Act:

“I am thankful that the Supreme Court did the right thing by protecting the millions of Americans who have secured more affordable health insurance under the Affordable Care Act,” said Senator Ellis. “This ruling is a win for Texas, as our state has the most to lose with the highest number of uninsured and the most people – over three million – eligible for marketplace coverage.”

Ellis continued: “People may disagree about the law, but one fact is indisputable – many people have and will benefit from the Affordable Care Act. Today, the uninsured rate for the nation has dropped by one-fifth. Millions of women get preventive services like mammograms and pap smears without a co-pay. Health plans must now spend 80 to 85 percent of every premium dollar on health care, insurers can no longer deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and young adults can be covered under their parent’s plan until age 26.”

“It is long past time to remove narrow politics from the health care debate and focus on truly improving health of women, children, and all Americans. We can and must do better to ensure that all Americans have access to health care.”

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Session in summary: positive steps & missed opportunities

Dear Friend:

After 140 long days, Texas’ 84th legislative session ended on June 1. Back in January, I spoke with you about my hopes for what we could accomplish to make Texas a better place for all families to live and work. While we took some steps in the right direction, the legislature missed far too many opportunities to create better schools for our children, make college more affordable, close corporate giveaways and ease the burden on hardworking Texas families, provide access to quality, affordable health care, and create a more fair and just criminal justice system. I am disappointed but looking forward to building on the successes that we did have.

Budget

The budget is the one bill the legislature is constitutionally required to pass. It’s often referred to as a moral document, as where we invest shows where our hearts are. With a large surplus and a long list of neglected needs, we had a unique opportunity and responsibility to build a better future for our state and make fiscally responsible investments in the vital needs of Texas. We had a chance to build better schools for our children, better roads for our communities, better jobs for working Texans, and ensure Texas families have the competitive economic future they deserve.

Unfortunately, the final budget only took halting steps in that direction. It includes increased funding for mental health services and reduced waiting lists for programs that serve Texans with disabilities and their families. It also increased funding for TEXAS Grants, the financial aid program I created in 1999 that has helped over 432,000 Texans pay for higher education.

But the budget can also be described by what’s not in it. Instead of reducing the overcrowding in our classrooms and paying teachers a fair salary, the legislature hoarded $18 billion and refused to invest it in our state’s future. Instead of addressing the shortfall in our state employees’ pension fund or fixing obsolete infrastructure, the legislature chose to spend their time and money on tax cuts for companies that spent millions lobbying the Capitol. Texans deserve better.

Criminal Justice

The legislature took some important first steps to create a fairer and more accurate criminal justice system. After 14 years of struggle and thanks to the tireless efforts of Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, we were finally able to pass a bill creating an exoneration review commission to study wrongful convictions. Texas takes away the liberty of more citizens through incarceration than any other state in this nation. With that power comes the responsibility to make sure we are locking up only the guilty, protecting the innocent, and continuing to make our justice system as reliable, fair, and effective as possible.

The legislature also ended the broken “key man” grand jury system, promoted the use of police-worn body cameras, and decriminalized the truancy system that had resulted in thousands of Texas children with criminal records simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their fines.

However, it failed to take action on numerous measures that would have reduced Texas’ overreliance on mass incarceration, reduced racial disparities in our justice system, and made our communities safer. This shows there’s still a long way to go to have the justice system Texans expect and deserve. With the news full of outrage in McKinney, Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere, there are still essential reforms that are needed to close the gap between the constitutional promise of equal justice under the law and the unfortunate reality of disparate justice in too many of our communities.

Education

Despite a court decision finding Texas’ public schools are woefully – and unconstitutionally – underfunded, the legislature took no steps to address the funding inadequacy. Instead, the final budget’s funding for public education does not even keep pace with inflation and continues to leave neighborhood schools struggling with overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers.

The legislature also passed on opportunities to tackle the out-of-control growth of tuition at our state’s colleges and universities. I pushed throughout session to cap tuition to make college more affordable and end the system that has allowed the cost of higher education to more than double since 2003, but efforts fell short in the end. Instead, the legislature passed a bill allowing guns on college campuses. This is a reflection of misplaced priorities. Rather than arming students with guns, we should be arming them with 21st century educational opportunities, better paying jobs, and fairer wages.

There were positives, though. Following up on reforms from 2013, the legislature took additional steps to scale back the use of high-stakes tests, and pseudo-reforms like vouchers and efforts to privatize our community schools were killed. Also, we passed legislation promoting high quality pre-kindergarten programs, but the bill notably does not expand the eligibility of pre-k – something I have long advocated for.

Health Care

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, with one in four Texans living without health insurance. Despite this shameful reality, our state continues to refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, preventing over one million Texans from accessing quality, affordable health care. Not only does it make good moral sense to ensure that your ability to access health care isn’t dependent on your bank account, but it’s a great opportunity to create over 300,000 good paying jobs per year over ten years, return $100 billion in Texans’ federal taxes back to our state, and grow our economy.

I fought on the Senate floor to close the coverage gap and secure aid for what local taxpayers pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. While my efforts were voted down on party lines, I pledge to continue fighting for this common sense change. After all, everyone has the right to affordable health care, and the contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care.

I was able to pass a few measures to help improve the health of Texans. SB 265 creates a uniform statewide policy to allow for the use of sunscreen in schools. Believe it or not, this bill was needed after some school districts banned the use of sunscreen – despite the fact that childhood sun exposure has been associated with a significant increase in risk for skin cancer.

I also passed a bill to allow Texas applicants for need-base assistance to opt-in to being contacted by community and faith based organizations. This will connect applicants for public assistance to charitable organization that can provide additional wrap around services and help them move toward self-sufficiency.

Fair Economy

I believe in a Texas that gives everyone a chance to compete and succeed in life. But too often this session efforts to make our state’s economy work for all Texas families fell short of passage. My bills to increase the minimum wage, provide avenues to fight wage discrimination, and review and close wasteful tax loopholes did not pass, and my efforts to end the disastrous Driver Responsibility Program passed the Senate but ran out of time in the House.

Texas works best when everyone gets a fair shot and everyone plays by the same rules. Working together we can make our state a better Texas. I hope that the successes from this past session confirm that, by working together toward a common goal, we can move Texas in the right direction. And where we fell short, I hope it provides a renewed vigor to push all the way to the finish line.

As always, it’s a pleasure representing the constituents of Senate District 13, and I look forward to continue fighting for you.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Happy Juneteenth

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day the long overdue message of freedom was delivered to the oppressed people of Texas.

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But since Union troops never made any significant intrusion into Texas during the Civil War, Lincoln’s proclamation was lost on the ears of enslaved black Texans for over two years. So Texas celebrates a different date of emancipation from most other former slave states.

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On June 19th, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger landed on the shores of Galveston with news that the war was over and that all enslaved people in Texas were free. He issued General Order Number 3, which read in part, “[t]he people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” News quickly spread across the state, eventually reaching the approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas at the time.

150 years later, we see more clearly that new challenges have replaced the old. Freedom now represents something much broader than emancipation from bondage. Too many continue to live in poverty, suffer in prisons, and lack equal educational opportunities. The battle is not over; it has just changed with the times.

With Wednesday’s mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, we’re reminded yet again that racial animus against African Americans is still firmly rooted in certain segments of our society. The tragic loss of nine innocent lives in what appears to be an act targeting black churchgoers cannot be condemned strongly enough. As President Obama said yesterday, “[t]he fact that this took place in a black church also raises questions about a dark part of our history.” It serves as the strongest possible reminder that “the past is never dead – it’s not even past.”

So I hope you will use this Juneteenth as a day to recommit to support one another and join together in an effort to weaken the forces of oppression in our society – so that one day we can celebrate Juneteenth as the achievement of a promise fulfilled.

Happy Juneteenth.


Supreme Court ruling on Confederate license plates

Yesterday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas can ban the Confederate battle flag from its specialty license plate program. I’m pleased that Texas will not be put in the position of issuing state-sanctioned license plates glorifying oppression and bigotry.

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, and I’m glad the Supreme Court ruling gives Texas the ability to make that decision.

Here’s more information on the Court’s ruling, and here’s an op-ed I wrote for the Austin American-Statesman arguing that Texas should be allowed to select the messages it wants to promote.

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Statement from Sen. Ellis on U.S. Supreme Court decision re: Confederate license plates

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to this morning’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding Texas’ right to ban the Confederate battle flag from the state’s specialty license plates:

“I’m pleased that Texas will not be put in the position of issuing state-sanctioned license plates glorifying oppression and bigotry,” said Senator 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, and I’m glad the Supreme Court ruling gives Texas the ability to make that decision.”

In March, Ellis wrote an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman arguing that Texas should be allowed to select the messages it wants to promote.

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Sen. Ellis on his vote against SB 11, the “campus carry” bill

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s passage of Senate Bill 11, the “campus carry” bill:

“As I’ve said before, this bill is a reflection of misplaced priorities,” said Senator Ellis. “Instead of arming students with guns, we should be arming them with 21st century educational opportunities, better paying jobs and fairer wages, and access to quality, affordable health care.”

Senator Ellis continued: “This is not a constitutional issue. This is an issue of ensuring our young people have a safe place of higher learning as they grow from childhood to adulthood.”

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Senate passes exoneration review commission bill

(Austin, TX) // Today, the Texas Senate unanimously passed HB 48, which would create the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission to study wrongful convictions. HB 48 is authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) and sponsored by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston). The bill now heads back to the House, as the Senate changed the bill.

“Texas takes away the liberty of more citizens through incarceration than any other state in this nation,” said Senator Ellis. “With that power comes the responsibility to make sure we are locking up only the guilty, protecting the innocent, and continuing to make our justice system as reliable, fair, and effective as possible.”

Senator Ellis continued: “I want to commend Rep. McClendon for her dedication in working to develop bipartisan support for a bipartisan concept. I look forward to putting the final touches on the bill to ensure it heads to Governor Abbott.”

HB 48 creates the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission to bring together trusted criminal justice experts to review proven wrongful convictions, identify the main causes of those convictions, and recommend more reliable practices to improve public safety and prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future. Currently, when an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, our system does not have any institutional mechanism to evaluate the conviction, identify what went wrong, and correct those mistakes to ensure it does not happen again.

The Commission is named after Tim Cole (pictured above), a Texas Tech University student who was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. Cole passed away in prison in 1999 after 25 years in prison. He became the state’s first and only posthumous exoneration in 2009, and then-Governor Rick Perry later pardoned Cole in 2010.

The Commission would review convictions of innocent people in much the same way as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates major accidents. When a major airplane, train, or space shuttle accident occurs, an in-depth investigation begins within hours to identify the causes and possible remedies to ensure it is not repeated. The Commission would provide similar safeguards to ensure justice is served in our state.

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Sen. Ellis’ statement on open carry amendment

(Austin, TX) // Tonight, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) voted for an amendment offered by Senator Don Huffines (R-Dallas) to HB 910, the open carry bill. Senator Ellis offers the following statement:

“I have a long history of opposing open carry legislation and a strong record of supporting sensible reforms to reduce gun violence and keep firearms out of the hands of criminals,” said Senator Ellis. “But if open carry is going to become law, law enforcement shouldn’t be able to circumvent constitutional rights and detain someone solely because they are open carrying in compliance with the law.”

Senator Ellis continued: “Our state has an unfortunate record on racial profiling and selective enforcement when it comes to detaining people of color. I supported Senator Huffines’ amendment because minority Texans, like all Texans, should be able to exercise their rights, whatever those rights might be, without fear of selective infringement and detention without any reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity.”

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Senate committee approves exoneration commission bill

(Austin, TX) // Today, the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs approved HB 48 on a 6 to 0 vote. The bill, which creates a exoneration review commission to study wrongful convictions, now goes to the full Senate for consideration. HB 48 is authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) and sponsored by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston).

“Texas has had more total exonerations and DNA exonerations than any other state in the country,” said Senator Ellis. “With this continuous flow of proven exonerations, we know with absolute certainty that tragic mistakes are occurring in our criminal justice system, and it is our duty and obligation to fix them. The conviction of the innocent not only ruins innocent lives, but it also harms public safety by allowing guilty perpetrators to remain free and destroying public trust in our justice system.”

Senator Ellis continued: “I want to commend Rep. McClendon for her hard work and perseverance in working to develop bipartisan support for a bipartisan concept. I look forward to working with my fellow Senators to push her bill to the finish line.”

The committee substitute to HB 48 creates the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission to bring together trusted criminal justice experts to review proven wrongful convictions, identify the main causes of those convictions, and recommend more reliable practices to improve public safety and prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future.

The Commission would review convictions of innocent people in much the same way as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates major accidents. When a major airplane, train, or space shuttle accident occurs, an in-depth investigation begins within hours to identify the causes and possible remedies to ensure it is not repeated. The Commission would provide similar safeguards to ensure justice is served in our state.

Yesterday, Senator Ellis met with a group of exonerees who were at the Capitol advocating for criminal justice reforms, including HB 48. The gentlemen each served over 20 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

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