Tag Archives: Texas Constitution

Judges seek permission to violate their oaths of office

Two Texas judges, Brian K. Umphress in Jack County and Diane Hensley in McLennan County, are suing the state because their religious faith compels them to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

Hmm. OK. Let me pose this question: What part of the oath of office you took that says you shall obey all the laws of the state and be faithful to the U.S. Constitution don’t you understand? 

These individuals both swore to uphold the secular laws of the counties they were elected to govern. The oath demands that they are faithful to those laws. It makes no mention of their religious beliefs or gives them any room to say, “Well, I’ll obey only those laws that do not conflict with my faith.”

This is nonsense.

Both of these judges are empowered by the Texas Constitution to perform marriage ceremonies. The Constitution, though, does not require them to perform every single service that shows up on their agenda.

These individuals have sued the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, which has sanctioned them for refusing to perform the duties to which they swore their oath. The Dallas Morning News reports, by the way, that even though Umphress presides over the Jack County Commissioners Court, he is not a “law judge.”

Justice of the Peace Hensley also is empowered to perform marriages. She has refused for the same reason that Umphress cites. I should tell her the same thing: Such empowerment is not a requirement.

Both of these folks can hand those duties off to other duly empowered county officials if they cannot in good faith perform that duty.

I also need to remind them both — although they know it already — that the U.S. Supreme Court, citing its belief in the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution, has declared gay marriage to be legal in all 50 states. 

If the laws of the land do not comport with these judges’ religious beliefs, then they shouldn’t be serving in their respective public offices.

Partisan labels are so, so, so distracting

I detest — no, I actually hate — electing judges on partisan tickets, forcing them to run either as Democrat or Republican.

That is no surprise to those who have been reading my musings over many years. I have tried to make the case that Texas needs to shed its partisan election of judges in favor of a system that allows voters to look more critically at someone’s judicial philosophy than at his or her party affiliation.

We’re heading into another election year. It’s going to be a doozy. We get to choose a president; in Texas, we get to select a U.S. senator. There will be a whole host of local offices as well, at the legislative and county levels.

Thus, I want to offer something that I once posited in a newspaper column back in the Texas Panhandle when I was a working stiff writing for the Amarillo Globe-News.

Why must we elect district attorneys, sheriffs, treasurers, tax assessor-collectors, district clerks, county clerks and — gulp! — constables on partisan ballots? I won’t mention justices of the peace, because I include them as judges.

I wrote a column once for the Globe-News in which I pitched the idea that partisan labels don’t apply to many of the officials who must run under either party’s banner. I got a surprising endorsement of that view from the Randall County tax assessor-collector at the time, who said she agreed with the basic tenet of my column. It was that there is no difference between what a Republican tax collector does and what a Democratic tax collector does. They both swear to follow Texas statute, which makes no delineation between the parties.

The same can be said of sheriffs, DAs, district and county clerks, treasurers. How does a Republican sheriff do his or her job compared to a Democratic sheriff? Are GOP sheriffs tougher on bad guys than Democrats? Please.

Same with DAs, which I suppose you could lump into the same sort of mold as judges. Why not judge these DA candidates on their legal philosophy rather than on whether they have a D or an R next to their name?

I know this will go absolutely nowhere. Texas legislators are so very resistant to change, let alone resistant to doing anything that would require amending the Texas Constitution.

I just want to express a continuing frustration with Texas’s love affair with partisan labels.

There. I’ve done it. I feel better already.

Still a need to revamp the Texas Constitution

I am no fan of the Texas Constitution. I don’t like having to vote on amendments every other year. I don’t believe the Constitution works as well as it would work if it were modeled more like the U.S. Constitution.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

On Tuesday, those few Texans who bother to vote will get to decide on a constitutional amendment that has no real meaning. It would make it more difficult to enact a personal income tax in Texas. Here’s the deal: We already have an amendment to the Texas Constitution that requires voters to approve a state income tax. The proposed amendment on the Tuesday ballot makes it more difficult for the Legislature to refer a state income tax to voters for their approval or likely rejection.

What’s more, the amendment already on the books was enacted after an earlier Legislature approved a law requiring a statewide vote to approve a state income tax.

Texans will decide the fate of 10 Texas constitutional amendments all told.

This is an absurd way to govern a state as huge, diverse, modern, cosmopolitan and sophisticated as Texas.

The 1876 Texas Constitution has been saddled with roughly 700 amendments. They all have gone to the voters for their approval. Except that constitutional amendment elections — which occur every odd-numbered year after the Legislature adjourns in May — usually draw paltry voter turnouts. By “paltry” I mean, well, dismal, abysmal, minuscule. These elections usually do not reflect rank-and-file Texans’ view of the proposed amendments. We need to do a much better job of boosting voter turnout … but that’s another story for another day.

The state came close to changing the Texas governing document. There was a serious move toward convening a constitutional convention in 1974. It collapsed.

The federal Constitution has been amended just 27 times. Congress refers amendments to the states, which then charge their legislative assemblies with the task of ratifying the amendment. If three-fourths of the states’ legislatures ratify the amendment, it gets added to the U.S. Constitution.

We have the federal court system to interpret whether laws are constitutional. The U.S. Constitution can get rickety at times. It is facing a serious test of its durability and strength now with the pending impeachment of the president of the United States. I am certain the U.S. Constitution will survive.

The Texas Constitution was the product of a government principle that didn’t trust the Legislature to enact certain laws without an endorsement of voters. It’s a creaky document that seems beyond antique as we prepare to commence the third decade of the 21st century.

Will the Legislature ever find the will to tackle serious reform of the Texas Constitution? Oh, probably not in my lifetime. I just want to put it on the record that I believe a major Texas governmental makeover is long overdue.

This ‘stunt’ is not necessary in Texas

Texans don’t like a state income tax. They don’t pay it now. They likely won’t ever approve of it in my lifetime, or maybe in my granddaughter’s lifetime.

Yet our Legislature has decided that we need to have yet another amendment to the Texas Constitution that makes a state income tax even more difficult to enact.

It’s as what one Dallas-area legislator has called it: a “stunt.”

Proposition 4 is the ballot. It is one of 10 amendments to the Texas Constitution that voters will decide next month. It will pass likely with a huge majority. It won’t have my vote.

It’s not necessarily that I want a state income tax. It is because Texas already has an amendment on the books, on top of a law passed prior by the Legislature that requires a majority of Texans to approve of a state income tax if the issue ever were put to a vote.

Proposition 4 is a case of amendment overkill.

According to the Texas Tribune: Currently, the Texas Constitution requires voters to approve an individual income tax in a statewide referendum, which legislators can ask for with a simple majority in the House and Senate. Proposition 4 would raise the bar, amendment the constitution so that any income tax resolution would need two-thirds support in both legislative chambers before the matter goes to votes, who would ultimately decide.

State Sen. Pat Fallon of Prosper, a Republican who toyed briefly with challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the 2020 GOP primary for Cornyn’s Senate seat, authored this amendment.

State Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, calls Prop 4 a “waste of time” in addition to labeling it a “stunt.” It is both of those things.

Texans won’t approve a state income tax. There is no need to clutter up the Texas Constitution — which is too cluttered as it is — with this piece of legislative idiocy.

Texas House speaker is playing a weird game with colleagues

Talk about doing an end-around …

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who’s under fire over a weird conversation he had with a fiery right-wing activist, has squandered the trust of his Republican House colleagues. He could just resign the speakership, but no-o-o. He decided to ask his colleagues to draft a resolution calling for him to quit.

Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, made an emotional speech Friday to his colleagues, apologizing for tossing several of them under the proverbial bus. His colleagues, though, decided against the resolution because House rules — not to mention the Texas Constitution — require them to be in active legislative session to remove a speaker from office.

Good grief, man. Just quit your speakership! At the very least, just announce you won’t seek the speakership for the 2021 Legislature.

Bonnen took part in a meeting in June with Empower Texans guru Michael Quinn Sullivan, who recorded the meeting he had with Bonnen and with former Texas House GOP chair Dustin Burrows of Lubbock. Bonnen offered Sullivan the names of 10 GOP legislators that Empower Texans could target in the 2020 election. He also offered to grant Empower Texans media credentials, which means House floor access to lawmakers.

Bonnen had tried to deny what he said. Then he apologized for saying mean things about his colleagues. Now we have heard the conversation. Sullivan had it right.

The Friday meeting was a tense affair, according to the Texas Tribune. House GOP members have condemned in strong language what Bonnen told Sullivan. They also are angry with Burrows. It is becoming apparent that Bonnen wouldn’t be re-elected as speaker if he decides to seek the office again.

The speaker is seeking to play some kind of weird game of chicken, it seems to me, with his Republican colleagues, several of whom have called for his resignation. He ought to knock it off.

Just submit your resignation or tell your colleagues you won’t run for the Man of the House job next time around.

‘Double-dipping’ not allowed in Texas

I likely shouldn’t even concern myself with this matter, but given the amount of money being poured into some Texas Panhandle legislative races, I think I’ll weigh in on a potential complication facing a candidate for the Texas Legislature.

Drew Brassfield is challenging state Rep. Four Price of Amarillo in the Republican primary for the House District 87 seat that Price has filled since 2011.

But … as they might say: Austin, we’ve got a problem.

Brassfield is the Fritch city manager. The Texas Constitution has some provisions in it that appear to make him ineligible to serve in the Legislature if he decides to keep his day job in Hutchinson County.

There’s more to this as well. Brassfield, who has been endorsed by the far-right group Empower Texans, isn’t divulging what his plans are until after election — presuming he wins the GOP primary, which remains the longest of long shots against a rising star in Rep. Price. He won’t tell voters if he intends to quit his city manager’s job and go to work as a legislator for $600 per month, plus a per diem expense total while the Legislature is in session.

Three clauses in the Constitution prohibit legislators from also drawing a salary from another public entity. One clause is quite specific, banning double-dipping if one of his jobs allows him to handle public money; as city manager, Brassfield certainly handles public funds.

Yet another clause says clearly that a legislator cannot hold another public office at the same time. Period. End of discussion.

These quite obvious conflict of interests are precisely why I said early on that Brassfield’s candidacy just didn’t pass the smell test.

It’s not that he is ineligible to run for the Legislature. It’s just that he would have to surrender his primary job — which also involves a public trust — if he gets elected to the Legislature.

The young man, furthermore, should tell voters up front before the primary election what he plans to do if hell freezes over and he defeats Price in the GOP primary.

What is fundamentally disgusting about Brassfield’s candidacy is that he is being used as a tool by a powerful political interest group that is misrepresenting Price’s voting records on issues such as elder care and abortion. Brassfield is not disavowing any of it.

So, young man, why not come clean before primary election day and tell House District 87 Republican voters what you intend to do if you manage to win this contest?

Early vote turnout ‘just dismal’ … oh, really?

Randall and Potter County election officials say the early voter turnout for next Tuesday’s statewide election is miserable in the extreme.

Only about 3 percent of the registered voters in both counties have bothered to cast ballots for the Texas constitutional amendments that will be decided.

Wow! Who knew? Actually, many of us could have seen this coming.

System breeds extreme apathy

The state’s system of amending its Constitution requires statewide voter approval of the amendments. It’s a highly obsolete and archaic system of government. It has caused me in the past to wonder: What is the point if so few Texans take part in this electoral process?

I have wondered before about whether we should have a Texas constitutional convention to re-craft a governing document that looks more like the federal Constitution. The nation’s founders established a governing framework avoids the cumbersome nature of calling elections whenever Congress and the president want to amend the Constitution.

Texas chose long ago to put all that power in the hands of rank-and-file Texans. Which is fine if they would actually exercise that power by going to the polls. The dismal turnout suggests to me that the vast majority of Texas residents don’t care about what their State Constitution says.

If only the state would think about the effectiveness of a system that places so much authority for governance in voters who refuse to take part in what is supposed to be a participatory process.

The Legislature won’t change it. The governor won’t go there, either.

So, we’re stuck with “dismal” turnouts that places a whole lot of power into the hands of too few of us.

About those elected offices …


Let’s take an earlier blog post briefly to the next level.

I questioned why we elect certain officials in Texas on partisan ballots, why we choose between Democrats and Republicans.

Here’s the blog.

A friend poses an excellent question: Why must we elect some of these officials at all?

He makes the excellent point that tax assessor-collectors, district clerks, county clerks and treasurers — all countywide elected offices — don’t set policy. They follow policy set by state legislators and, to a lesser degree, by county commissioners. They are “functionaries,” he says.

I guess I harken back to an earlier point: Texans love to elect people to public office. It’s in our political DNA, I reckon. Perhaps we like to hold them accountable to us exclusively; we don’t want some intermediary standing between these individuals and the people who elect them.

But my friend’s point remains well-taken.

Then again, that would call for an even more drastic leap of faith were we to recommend such a drastic change to our antiquated Texas Constitution.

I’m willing to take it.


Partisan labels ought to go


I arrived in Texas in the spring of 1984 with my eyes open about the state’s vigorous political climate.

Perhaps I should have opened my eyes just a little bit wider so that I could see something that got past me as I studied up on the way things would be done in my new home state.

I knew that Texans like to elect people to public office. We have more elected offices than I’d ever seen, for instance, at the county level.

What I didn’t quite grasp, though, were the partisan labels that we attach to all the candidates. Perhaps most fascinating is how we elect judges in this state — as Republicans or Democrats.

My new Texas home would be — for my first 11 years in this state — in Beaumont, where Democrats ruled. Indeed, the entire state was still controlled by Democrats, who held most of the elective office statewide.

What I couldn’t quite grasp, though, is why we elect choose Democrats and Republicans among candidates seeking public office.

I’m left now, 32 years later, to keep asking: Can someone identify for me the difference between a Democratic and a Republican tax assessor-collector, or county clerk, or district clerk, or treasurer? For that matter, does a sheriff or district attorney arrest and prosecute criminal suspects differently if they’re Democrat or Republican?

I posed these questions once in a column I wrote for the Amarillo Globe-News. I got an interesting response from a county elected official — a loyal Republican, naturally — who agreed with me. She couldn’t fathom the difference, either, between how individuals of one party would do the job she took an oath to do any differently from individuals of another party.

Judgeships have proved to be the most troublesome.

In the early to mid-1980s, solid Republican were getting booted out of office or were losing elections simply because they were of the wrong party. It was wrong then, just as it is wrong now to see more qualified Democratic candidates losing to Republicans for precisely the same reason.

I don’t intend — yet — to make this a major issue for this blog. I just feel inclined to suggest that a change to a more reasonable and logical election system would serve the state better than the system we have now.

State legislators, governors and other statewide officeholders — except judges — surely can make the case that partisan differences exist. I’m fine with that.

Judges? That’s another matter.

I’ve all but given up arguing for a retention system in which judges are appointed and then stand for retention at the ballot box. At this point, I’d settle for a change in the way we elect judges, simply by having them run on their judicial philosophy rather than on whether they belong to a certain political party.

How would we change all that? Through a constitutional amendment, which requires a vote of all Texans — and which is equally cumbersome, antiquated and nonsensical.

That, though, is a subject for another day.


Texas AG facing serious ethical probe

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 18: Texas Governor Greg Abbott (2nd L) speaks alongside U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L), Attorney General Ken Paxton (2nd R), Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) hold a joint press conference February 18, 2015 in Austin, Texas. The press conference addressed the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas' decision on the lawsuit filed by a Texas-led coalition of 26 states challenging President Obama's executive action on immigration. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Ken Paxton took a serious oath when he became the Texas attorney general.

He put his hand on a Bible and vowed to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and of the state.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court did something Paxton — I presume — didn’t expect. It ruled that gay marriage was legal in all 50 states. All of ’em. Including Texas.

How did Paxton react? He said county clerks weren’t bound by the court ruling, that they could refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples if the issuance of such documents violated their religious beliefs.

Oops! Can’t do that, said the State Bar of Texas.

It’s now going to launch an ethics investigation to see if Paxton — who’s already been indicted for securities fraud by a Collin County grand jury — violated his oath.

Well, of course he did!

If I were able to make a call on this, I’d declare that the AG broke faith with the oath he took. So did that county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Clark, who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and who spent some time in jail because of that refusal.

What I can’t quite fathom is how these elected public officials feel they can get away with refusing to serve all their constituents. Paxton is a statewide officeholder, representing 26 million Texans. He won election in 2014 and then swore to follow the laws of the land. Not just those with which he agrees.

The Texas bar would seem to have an easy decision on its hands as it regards whether Paxton violated his oath of office. The tougher decision will be in the sanction it should level against him.

I am not going to say he should be removed from office.

Honestly, though, it baffles me constantly that these public officials — who get paid to represent every constituent — think they can select which laws to obey and which laws to flout.

That oath is clear. They cannot make that choice.

At all.