Category Archives: legal news

Drug-bust stories becoming … um, boring

“Police grab drugs in ‘traffic stop.'”

You hear and read these headlines all the time. I almost always chuckle when I see these stories. Why? Because the traffic stop, such as it is, usually is something of a ruse. The police pull motorists over expecting to find contraband hidden away.

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers have gotten really good at this.

The Interstate 40 corridor across the Texas Panhandle usually is among the most lucrative for DPS traffic troopers of any district within the state police network.

How do these troopers do it? As I understand it, they “profile” motorists as they blaze their way along I-40. If the motorist or a passenger looks suspicious when they pass a DPS trooper, the officer will give chase. Then they just might find something in the trunk of the car, or stuffed under the seats, or duct-taped to the undercarriage a “controlled substance” of some sort.

The War on Drugs, which has produced mixed results — and that’s the best thing I can say about it — has made law enforcement officers quite proficient at intercepting drugs on our major highway corridors.

Have these “traffic stops” done anything to curb the manufacture, sale, distribution and use/abuse of these drugs? Not one bit.

However, I continue to marvel at how good the police have gotten at this endeavor.

To be sure — as any cop on the beat will tell you — none of these “traffic stops” ever can be called “routine.”

AG vote delay: preposterous

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wants to go home, wants to hand his job over to someone else and wants to bow out of the public eye.

He’s infuriated that he cannot do any of that because the people with whom he’s had the most serious disputes during his time as head of the Justice Department — congressional Republicans — won’t vote on whether to confirm his successor-to-be, Loretta Lynch.

The U.S. Senate has delayed Lynch’s confirmation vote because Republicans are mad at Democrats over an abortion provision in an anti-human trafficking bill.

What does that have to do with Lynch’s nomination? Beats me. It also puzzles Holder and President Obama, who nominated Lynch to become the first African-American woman to lead the Justice Department.

“When we show the American people the dysfunction that has gripped Washington over the last few years, and add yet another layer of dysfunction, this erodes faith in our institutions. And that’s just not good for the country over the long term,” Holder said.

Dysfunction? Yes, there’s been a lot of it, Mr. Attorney General.

Lynch’s qualifications are yet to be challenge seriously. Some Senate Republicans want her to disagree publicly with the president on his immigration-related executive order. Fat chance, folks.

So now we’re still stuck. Lynch is waiting and waiting for a vote that she — and the country — deserve to take place.

Meanwhile, the man the Senate GOP loves to loathe remains on the job — where I only can suppose these senators want him to vacate.


Texas grand jury system under review

The Texas criminal justice system has this strange idea about how to select trial juries and grand juries.

Grand jurors are chosen in most counties by jury commissioners, who are selected by a presiding judge; the commissioners then look for people they believe are “qualified” to serve on a panel that determines whether a criminal complaint should result in officials charges brought against someone. The issue is whether a grand juror can commit to meet over the course of several weeks to make these determinations.

Trial jurors are selected at random. District clerks go through voter registration rolls to find people whose names are put into a large pool of potential jurors. The only qualification is that they be residents of the county and be of sound mind, etc.

Here’s an interesting aspect of the selection processes. The state believes it is fine to select someone at random, and then ask that person to determine whether some lives or dies if that individual is convicted of a capital crime. But a grand jury requires more of a screening process to find individuals who can serve on that panel.

Texas legislators are considering a bill that would make the grand jury selection system look more like the trial jury selection method.

I say, “Go for it, lawmakers.”

Back in 1984, when I arrived in Texas, the newspaper where I worked at the time, the Beaumont Enterprise, was involved in an editorial campaign to change the grand jury selection system. There had been questions raised about whether a particular grand jury had been chosen because grand jurors had a particular bias. The paper raised all kinds of heck with the two judges in Jefferson County with criminal jurisdiction. We argued vehemently that the system needed to be changed. Over time, the judges heeded our calls and changed to a random selection method.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, thinks the state should require a random method in all 254 Texas counties.

He says the system needs total confidence in all its working parts. As The Associated Press reported, the current system is ridiculed as a “pick a pal” system in which friends pick friends to serve on a grand jury.

Now, for the record, I once served on a grand jury in Randall County. I was asked by a friend, who was serving as a jury commissioner for the 181st District Court, presided over by Judge John Board.

I agreed. Board chose me along with several other people and we met regularly for three months. We confronted no controversy during our time and our service ended without a whimper of discontent.

That particular grand jury worked well. The threat, though, of dysfunction created by potential bias has created a need for the Texas Legislature to change the selection system.

If the random selection method is able to seat people who then can determine whether someone should die for committing a crime, then it will work to select people who can decide whether to charge someone with a crime.


Race enters Lynch debate over AG vote

I didn’t predict it would happen, but the debate over when to vote on the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general has taken an unsurprising turn.

The issue of race has entered this debate, as Lynch is the first African-American woman ever nominated to head the Justice Department.

The introduction was made by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said the delays in voting on Lynch’s confirmation has forced the nominee to “sit at the back of the bus.” Durbin’s reference, of course, was to the great Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in the 1950s.

To my mind, the issue more about partisan politics than it is about race and Durbin should not have gone there during his Senate floor speech.

Durbin drew the expected criticism from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the Senate’s lone black Republican, who accused Durbin of being a race-baiter.

“It is helpful to have a long memory and to remember that Durbin voted against Condoleezza Rice during the 40th anniversary of the March [on Selma]. So I think, in context, it’s just offensive that we have folks who are willing to race bait on such an important issue as human trafficking,” Scott said. “Sometimes people use race as an issue that is hopefully going to motivate folks for their fight. But what it does, is it infuriates people.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is wrong to hold up the Lynch vote. She needs to be confirmed and the Justice Department needs to get refocused exclusively on its job, which is to enforce federal law.

I just wish we could have kept the race argument out of this so we can stick instead to the raw political gamesmanship that the GOP leadership is playing while delaying Lynch’s confirmation vote.


McConnell up to old tricks in Senate

Mitch McConnell promised to make the U.S. Senate work better if he became its majority leader.

The upper legislative chamber would start governing again, he said.

OK, so how’s he doing on his pledge? Not very well.

The Kentucky Republican has announced he plans to hold up a confirmation vote on Loretta Lynch to become the next attorney general if Democrats don’t play ball on a controversial human trafficking bill.

What does one thing have to do with the other? Not nearly enough to justify holding up Lynch’s confirmation vote.

Democrats are holding back their support of a trafficking bill that was supposed to be a non-controversial piece of legislation. Then they read some of the fine print in it and are now balking. McConnell said the Senate needs to clear that bill off the table before it considers Lynch’s nomination to succeed Eric Holder as the nation’s AG.

Holy obstruction, Batman!

This nomination needs to move forward. Lynch is highly qualified to be the nation’s attorney general. Republicans keep saying how much they dislike the way Holder does his job. Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader is doing all he can to ensure Holder stays on the job.

What gives?

As The Hill notes, Lynch has been twisting in the wind long enough: “Lynch’s nomination has been awaiting confirmation for 128 days, longer than the past five attorneys general. Holder, by comparison, had to wait only 64 days before receiving Senate confirmation.”

Schedule a vote, Mr. Majority Leader, and allow Loretta Lynch to be confirmed.

Lynch nomination a cliffhanger? Why?

Sometimes I can be a bit slow on the uptake. I get that. I concede it’s a weakness.

But for the life of me, I do not understand why Loretta Lynch’s nomination to become the next U.S. attorney general is hanging by a thread. Someone will have to explain this one to me.

Lynch is supposed to replace Eric Holder as AG. She was thought to be set for a relatively easy confirmation. Then the man who appointed her, President Obama, decided to issue an executive order that delayed deportation of some 5 million illegal immigrants; the order allows them to seek work permits while they stay in the United States.

The order enraged Senate Republicans. So what did they do? They began questioning Lynch about whether she supported the president’s executive decision.

What on God’s Earth did they expect her to say?

“Well, senator, since you asked, I think that’s the dumbest damn idea I’ve ever heard. It’s illegal. It violates the Constitution. The president has rocks in his head and he should be impeached just for being stupid enough to issue the order.”

Is that what they want her to say? I’m beginning to think that’s the case.

Instead, she has declared her support of the president’s decision. As if that’s some big surprise to the senators, some of whom said they’d support her initially, but then changed their mind because — gasp! — she’s endorsing a key policy of the man who wants her to become the next attorney general.

Who’da thunk such a thing?

Loretta Lynch is eminently qualified to assume this important post. Republicans have made no secret of their intense dislike of Holder, who said he’d stay on the job until the next AG is confirmed.

I believe Holder has done just fine as attorney general, but he wants to move on, spend time with his family, pursue other interests … all those clichés. So, let him do it.

First, though, confirm Loretta Lynch.

Oops, Perry has own email trail

Doggone it anyhow, former Gov. Rick Perry.

Why did you have to be so quick on the trigger in criticizing Hillary Rodham Clinton over this brewing email controversy, in which it is alleged that Clinton used a private email account to conduct federal government business.

It turns out the former Texas governor has done the same thing while working for our state.

Perry piled on Clinton quickly, accusing her of lacking “transparency” in the way she conducted the public’s business while serving as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

Now, though, two legislators — both Democrats — say they believe Perry is just as non-transparent as Secretary Clinton. The questions come from state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio and former state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez of El Paso.

As the Texas Tribune reported: “Martinez Fischer and Gonzalez both sat on the House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations as it looked into turmoil on the University of Texas System Board of Regents. At a meeting of the panel in 2013, Martinez Fischer brought up the emails in question, some of which were then obtained by The Texas Tribune. The emails, in which Perry is identified as only “RP,” show him corresponding with a number of UT regents as well as Jeff Sandefer, a prominent Republican donor and informal adviser to Perry.”

The Tribune also reported that Perry’s office has responded to the allegations: “’The Governor’s Office complied with state law regarding email correspondence,’ Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said. ‘While serving as governor of Texas, Gov. Perry’s emails were requested and released through public information requests.'”

Isn’t that what Clinton’s team has said, that she complied with the “spirit and letter” of federal law?

Is this yet another hurdle the ex-Republican governor will have to clear — along with that felony indictment alleging abuse of power — if he intends to seek the presidency once more?


Great work, judge, if you can get it

This thought didn’t originate with me. It comes from my friend Jon Mark Beilue, a columnist for the Amarillo Globe-News, who took note of something he saw.

I’m passing it along here.

It is that Judy Scheindlin, aka Judge Judy, I going to rake in tens of millions of dollars annually dispensing “justice” on television.

Judge Judy has been given a contract extension that will pay her an undisclosed amount of money through 2020. If history is a guide, it’s going to be for lots and lots of money.

Her Honor earned $47 million in 2014.

As Jon Mark noted in his social media post, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Roberts, earns about $225,000 annually. All he and his eight colleagues on the highest court in the land do for a living is determine whether federal laws comport with the U.S. Constitution. They get to decide things like, oh, the fate of the Affordable Care Act, whether someone deserves to be executed for crimes they commit or whether abortion remains legal.

Judge Judy? She gets to scold people for not making good on fender-bender accident claims, or shaving their neighbor’s pet dog or cat, or absconding with a refrigerator load of food. It’s that kind of thing that Judge Judy gets to hear.

For that she earns millions.

As Jon Mark noted: Only in America …


Ex-cop won't face federal civil rights charges

I truly don’t know what to think about the Justice Department’s decision against prosecuting a former police officer in the death of a young black man.

Darren Wilson, formerly a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, was no-billed by a local grand jury this past year after he shot Michael Brown to death during an altercation.

The grand jury’s decision to let Wilson go set off a firestorm across the nation.

Then the Justice Department said it would weigh in on whether Wilson violated any federal civil rights laws when he shot Brown to death. The DOJ said today it wouldn’t prosecute him.

Is this a good thing? For Wilson, who quit the department after the grand jury cleared him, it’s certainly good news. Brown’s family no doubt feels differently.

Me? I tend to honor the local criminal justice system’s view on these matters. The locals said they lacked sufficient evidence to bring charges against the officer and the feds have concurred with what the locals decided.

But there’s an interesting political back story here. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has been criticized — wrongly, in my view — as a “race-baiter.” The calls come from those on the right who contend that Holder, the nation’s first African-American AG, too often relies on race to inform his public policies.

Well, here we have a Justice Department deciding that the white former police officer didn’t commit a crime that needed a federal civil-rights trial to resolve.

Does that mean the criticism of Holder will subside, now that his department — which he is about to leave — has sided with the white guy?

Do not hold your breath waiting for that to happen.


Change of venue? Sure thing … not!

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev thinks he can find a more impartial jury pool in a city other than Boston.

Sure thing, accused Boston Marathon bomber. Go for it. My hunch is that the man’s trial is staying put.

Tsarnaev is accused of detonating a bomb that exploded at the finish line of the world-renowned race. Surveillance videos captured images of him and his late brother moments before the blast as they were leaving a “package” near the blast site.

Jury selection in Boston has been delayed by many factors, including the horrendous weather that has all but buried the city under several feet of snow. Those delays apparently have given Tsarnaev’s legal team reason to seek a “Hail Mary” move to get the trial moved to another site.

Where, it is fair to ask, is there a place where residents don’t know about the bombing or haven’t formed an opinion on the incident?

The same question could be applied to, say, the change of venue that the judge granted for Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The government moved his trial to Denver, where he was convicted anyway. The jury sentenced him to death and McVeigh was executed for his crime.

Tsarnaev’s trial should remain in the city where the crime occurred. The court will seat a qualified jury eventually, once the city clears the mountains of snow off the streets.