Sen. Ellis on Texas’ school finance ruling

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Senator Ellis’ speech from the press conference is below:

Thank you all for attending this press conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering Mickey Leland

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

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

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

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

Mickey Leland Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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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.”


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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.”


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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
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.


Rodney Ellis


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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.


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.


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.


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.


Rodney Ellis

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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.

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