Newsroom

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

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

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

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

###

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Statement from Sen. Ellis on Bill Powers

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to news that University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers had submitted his letter of resignation, effective June 2, 2015.

“I’m glad that a resolution was worked out that justifiably allows Bill to leave office at a time of his choosing and with his head held high. The acrimony and conflict that would have arisen – both on campus and in the Capitol – had Bill been fired would have been an enormous distraction and a disservice to the University as a whole. I look forward to working with Bill during the upcoming legislative session and his successor in the years to come.”

 ###

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Statement from Sen. Ellis on State Bar action regarding Charles Sebesta

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement regarding news that the State Bar of Texas has found just cause to pursue disciplinary action against Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor that oversaw the wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves.

“I’m pleased that the State Bar has found just cause to pursue disciplinary action against Charles Sebesta,” said Senator Ellis. “It’s imperative that we hold accountable people whose actions rob men like Anthony Graves of their lives and freedom. But, beyond holding them accountable after the fact, it’s essential that we commit ourselves to advancing changes in our justice system that prevent wrongful convictions like Anthony’s in the first place.”

“That includes protecting recent changes in the law like the Michael Morton Act, which updated Texas’ criminal discovery statute to ensure more open and transparent discovery in all criminal cases.”

“Other reforms would also decrease the likelihood of wrongful convictions. If we simply recorded interrogations to improve the reliability of confessions, we could have known up front that the confession used against Anthony was unreliable. If we improve the quality of representation on the front end to ensure all people – rich and poor – are treated equally under the law, we could help uncover a flawed case like this before someone has to suffer in prison for over 18 years. At the bare minimum, Texans deserve a fair and accurate justice system – one with proper checks and balances and transparency to make sure all relevant facts come to light.”

###

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Letter from Senator Ellis to UT System Chancellor Cigarroa

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent the below letter (also attached) to University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa regarding recent news reports that University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers was asked to resign last week.

July 7, 2014

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa
Chancellor
The University of Texas System
601 Colorado Street
Austin, Texas 78701

Dear Chancellor Cigarroa:

Recent news reports indicate that you have asked University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers to resign, and if he does not do so, he will be fired at the July 10 Board of Regents meeting.

I hope these reports are not true, as President Powers has been a strong leader during his tenure. In the past eight years, UT Austin has experienced a 25 percent increase in the number of top five programs, and the University now has 59 top-ten programs and 111 top-25 programs. UT’s Dell Medical School is under construction on campus, a boon to the central Texas area. UT Austin is nearing the completion of its $3 billion capital campaign, an accomplishment that is made even more significant by the fact that much of it occurred during the country’s recent economic downturn.  In 2013 alone, President Powers helped to bring in a record $453 million in gifts and pledges, a 23 percent increase over the previous record.  Plus, President Powers currently serves as the chairman of the American Association of Universities, the premier organization of public and private national research universities.

Forcing President Powers out of office immediately prior to your departure does a disservice to both Bill’s record in office and your legacy as Chancellor.  Further, the University itself deserves better than this.  I am concerned that a forced resignation will further inflame an already stressed relationship between legislators and the Board of Regents. This strain has tarnished the University enough; it shouldn’t also end the career of a popular and successful public servant.

As an alumnus and as a state senator with thousands of current and former students living and working in my senatorial district, I strongly urge you to reconsider.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

###

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

We Shall Overcome: 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

Dear Friend,

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the most significant pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress, so many of the basic freedoms that we share as Americans were given legal force with President Johnson’s signature.

 120114043428-martin-luther-king-bill-signing-story-top

The unequal application of voter registration requirements was barred, and public accommodations were opened to all regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. “Whites only” water fountains and restaurants were outlawed, and “blacks need not apply” job announcements became a violation of federal law.

After signing the bill into law, President Johnson delivered remarks to nation. His full remarks can be found here, but I’d like to provide an excerpt:

I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.

One hundred and eighty-eight years ago this week a small band of valiant men began a long struggle for freedom. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor not only to found a nation, but to forge an ideal of freedom – not only for political independence, but for personal liberty – not only to eliminate foreign rule, but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men.

That struggle was a turning point in our history. Today in far corners of distant continents, the ideals of those American patriots still shape the struggles of men who hunger for freedom.

LBJvideo

Click above to watch LBJ’s full remarks

This is a proud triumph. Yet those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning. From the minutemen at Concord to the soldiers in Vietnam, each generation has been equal to that trust.

Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.

We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.

We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.

We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings – not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.

The reasons are deeply embedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand – without rancor or hatred – how this all happened.

But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.

Make no mistake: the fight for civil rights continues to this day, whether it’s your ability to have your voice heard at the ballot box, maintain equal access to quality education, or preserve health services for women and the poor. Race and poverty are sadly still intertwined. Minorities still earn less, die earlier, and are imprisoned at disproportionately higher rates.

untitled-1_10xx

Public Law 88-352: the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The future of our state truly depends on erasing these differences and ensuring that all people have the tools and ability to succeed.

During President Johnson’s final public appearance, he acknowledged that the work is not done:

Our objective must be to assure that all Americans play by the same rules, and all Americans play against the same odds. Who among us would claim that that is true today?

We have proved that great progress is possible. We know how much still remains to be done. And if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then my fellow Americans, I am confident, we shall overcome.

We must honor and fulfill the sacrifice of the men and women of our past, those who paved the way for generations to live the promise of this state and nation. Steps backward dishonor their memory and ignore the blood and tears shed in the pursuit of liberty.

So today, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, let’s stand together and honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action towards the preservation of our civil rights. Let’s continue that fight by demanding policies that invest in Texas children and families, laws that reward and protect the dignity of a hard day’s work, and rules that protect the right to vote.

Let’s recognize that while we have made great strides over the past half-century, we still have a long way to go. I hope you’ll join me in the fight.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

Hard work continues for Travis County’s big move on public defense

By Sen. Rodney Ellis

Imagine a baseball game in which the umpire also happened to be the manager of one of the teams. Absurd, right? Yet something very much like that scenario plays out in many Texas courtrooms every day.

When a person charged with a crime cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires that an attorney be appointed to protect the rights of the accused. In most Texas counties, judges control the appointment of these attorneys. They decide who is eligible and control how much the lawyers will be paid. Judges even have a responsibility for making sure the defenders do their job appropriately, even though they only see a sliver of the attorney’s job performance in the courtroom.

While they do their best, it is not hard to see that judges already have a full plate without having to supervise the performance of one half of our adversarial system. This is one big reason the American Bar Association’s first principle for public defense says that “the public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent.”

Travis County is poised to start a new system which promises to not only make indigent defense more independent of the judiciary, but also to add a level of management, quality monitoring, and professional development that has not been part of the system before. With the help of a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, the county will implement a “managed assigned counsel” program, in which a non-profit criminal defense organization will coordinate and provide criminal defense services to poor defendants. The program will work with the two existing public defender offices in Travis County, specializing in juvenile cases and representation of persons with mental illness, and provide defense for all other appointed cases.

As a result, 100 percent of the county’s indigent defense appointments will be handled through an independent, professionally-managed defender organization – a first in Texas. The Travis County judges, court personnel, and defense bar are to be congratulated for taking the initiative to hammer out a plan that will benefit the county’s entire justice system.

Managed assigned counsel programs, patterned on a successful private defender program in San Mateo, California, are a relatively new option for Texas counties that rely on private attorneys to provide indigent defense services. The program recognizes the benefits of independence from the judiciary and the need for more proactive coordination and management.

Some of the program’s biggest boosters are judges, who are pleased to be relieved of the somewhat awkward responsibility for coordinating defense services, which for many is a distraction from their core responsibilities. With the defense under judicial control, the biggest concern is not that the defense gets any advantage, but rather that there is pressure on the defense to do what is in the interest of the courts (such as move cases quickly) as opposed to what is in the interests of their clients (which may create more work for the courts). The traditional system creates a complex web of incentives which needlessly complicates, and sometimes compromises, the practice of criminal defense.

While the benefits are many, the implementation of this new program will have to remain true to the ideals of better justice from which it came. The new structure alone will not elevate the quality of services provided. That will take effective management, sufficient resources, and a willingness to hold lawyers to a high standard of professionalism.

While the system needs to make sure that it invests in the attorneys providing this important service for the county, we must focus on the fact that it does not exist for the lawyers first and foremost, but rather to protect the rights of the indigent accused. Too often, poor defendants in Texas have been victims of the “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” variety of defense.  An effective defense requires client communication, investigation of the facts, and zealous advocacy for the best outcome possible for the client.

While these things will not automatically follow from the new management system, there is now the best opportunity ever to ensure that every accused person, no matter how poor, is represented with the professionalism that is appropriate to our ideals of fairness and justice.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with:

Senator Ellis praises new EPA rules on carbon dioxide

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement regarding President Obama’s announcement of new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.

“I’m proud of President Obama and the EPA for fighting to protect Americans from climate change and air pollution. There is an urgent need to act, and the President has answered the country’s call. My preference is that Congress would act, but we all know that’s not going to happen.” said Senator Ellis.

“Climate change is already here: the country’s twelve hottest years on record have come in the last 15 years, and Texas is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in recorded history. If we want to leave our children and grandchildren a safe and healthy environment, we’ve got to limit carbon emissions – just like we’ve done with arsenic, mercury, and other pollutants.”

“Texas has already made great strides in recent years in growing its clean energy industry, and the flexibility provided by these new rules will help to expand our use of wind, solar, and other renewables even further.”

Senator Ellis serves on the Texas Senate Committee on Natural Resources and chairs the Commission to Engage African Americans on Energy, Climate Change, and the Environment.

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Utility paths – After years of hurdles, plans begin

EDITORIAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: News Articles • Tagged with:

50 years later, Obama salutes effects of Civil Rights Act

By PETER BAKER |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in: News Articles • Tagged with:

Civil rights remain a struggle in Texas

By Members of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus

This week, Texas will welcome four U.S. Presidents and dozens of dignitaries for the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library. It’s a chance to honor an essential movement that’s reshaped, and is continuing to reshape, our great nation.

It’s also a chance to reflect on what “civil rights” — ideas like freedom, fairness, equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — mean to 21st century Texans. There are still unfair laws to fight. But in Texas, the civil rights struggle has expanded to unfair budgets as well.

Make no mistake: Education is a civil right. Healthcare is a civil right. So are the rights to drink clean water, move freely about our communities and, most importantly, vote.

For years, these rights have been undermined, and even openly attacked, in the Texas Capitol. There may not be the same grainy, violent news footage that people associate with the civil rights struggle, but the basic stakes of fairness and equality haven’t changed.

Texans love this state. We settle and stay here to pursue our fair share of Texas’ prosperity. So we rightly demand a fair system that provides real, meaningful freedom and opportunity to each of us — no matter our ethnicity, our gender or where we live.

But when we look to those running state government, Texans don’t always see fairness.

Instead, we see a fixed system that consistently puts well-connected millionaire donors and corporations ahead of middle-class working Texans.

We see a school finance system that’s so unfair and inadequate that most Texas school districts felt compelled to sue the state over it.

We see a sustained attack on health services, women and the poor, along with efforts to revise history, whitewash the record, and ignore the plain fact that Texas leads the nation in its percentage of uninsured residents.

We see a murky, incomprehensible budget that makes it difficult to determine how much of our money is going to school kids and how much is going to billionaire sports team owners.

We see budget writers who piously scold others about “budgeting like a family” while they watch state highways grind to a halt, allow rural areas to fall into drought, and ignore the obvious investments that would keep the state’s infrastructure from crumbling like a neglected house.

And in clear echoes of struggles from 50 years ago, we see repeated efforts to make it harder for Texans to exercise the most fundamental right of all – the right to cast their ballots.

These are subtle attacks. They generally occur in back rooms and behind closed doors. They don’t make for iconic television.

But for children, women and men of all races – for hard-working citizens across Texas – these are attacks on dignity, opportunity for prosperity, freedom, and, yes, civil rights.

For these millions and millions of Texans, the fight for freedom and fairness is as much about the present and future as it is about the past.

We’re glad so many people have come to Texas this week to take part in this critical conversation. Let’s make sure it extends beyond this event, through this year’s elections and into next year’s legislative session.

This article was co-authored by members of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus, including Senators Kirk Watson (Chair), John Whitmire, Judith Zaffirini, Rodney Ellis, Eddie Lucio, Jr., Royce West, Leticia Van de Putte, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Carlos Uresti, José Rodríguez, and Sylvia R. Garcia.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with: