What to expect from high-profile Texas court cases in 2016


The new year could bring resolution — or at least significant developments — to a long list of high-profile, long-simmering court cases and legal disputes in Texas.

Some of the cases have the potential to affect government policies not only in Texas but across the nation — particularly on the hot-button issues of abortion and race relations.

Others could send prominent politicians to prison, including former Gov. Rick Perry, who awaits an appeals court ruling on whether he will have to stand trial on charges linked to a 2013 veto in a case that could affect how future governors wield power in Texas.

And then there’s the latest version of the school finance saga, with a Texas Supreme Court decision expected that will likely have long-term implications for property tax bills and education policy.

After a year dominated by a gay marriage decision that upended state laws, 2016 is poised to offer a wide range of newsmaking legal decisions:

Rick Perry

Indicted by a Travis County grand jury on two felonies in August 2014, the former Texas governor and two-time unsuccessful presidential candidate is waiting for the state’s highest criminal court to decide if he will have to go to trial on a charge of abusing his power as governor.

Perry’s appellate lawyer, Austin’s David Botsford, had a strong showing at oral arguments before the Court of Criminal Appeals in November, calling charges related to Perry’s legal use of his veto power improper and dangerous.

On the other side, prosecutors worked to revive a second charge — coercion of a public official — that was dismissed when a lower court threw out the coercion law as unconstitutional.

The charges relate to Perry’s 2013 threat to veto money for Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit unless District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned after her conviction for driving while intoxicated. When Lehmberg refused, Perry cut all of the unit’s $7.5 million from the state budget.

Ken Paxton

Charged with breaking state securities laws during private business deals when he was a member of the Texas House, the attorney general was unsuccessful in multiple attempts to have the three felony charges dismissed before trial.

On New Year’s Eve, however, Paxton filed notice that he will appeal the rulings by state District Judge George Gallagher, who had flatly rejected 10 motions and filings attacking two charges of securities fraud and a charge of failing to register with state regulators.

Before the appeal, Paxton was on course for a trial that could have been held as early as late summer or fall, lawyers have said. The appeal, and the potential for a second round of appeals to the state’s highest criminal court, could extend the Paxton case well into 2017.

Also pending:

• Paxton’s request to limit compensation for prosecutors to $1,000 for pretrial work — far below the $300 an hour promised.

• A decision from the Texas Ethics Commission on whether donors can contribute to a legal-defense fund for politicians like Paxton. Because the charges are not related to his job as an elected official, Paxton cannot tap money raised by his campaign.

Abortion

When the Legislature passed House Bill 2 during the second of two tense special sessions in 2013, there were more than 40 abortion clinics operating in the state. That would drop to about 10 if the law is allowed to be fully implemented.

On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether HB 2’s restrictions place an improper burden on women seeking access to an abortion. The decision, expected by the end of June, could provide much-needed clarification on the thorny question of how much regulation is too much if it produces widespread clinic closures, particularly as other states act to follow Texas’ lead.

At stake are HB 2’s rules requiring abortions to be performed in highly regulated surgical settings (on hold while the Supreme Court case continues) and requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals (in force in most parts of the state since late 2013).

Affirmative action

Supreme Court justices also are weighing the University of Texas’ policy of considering race as one of several factors in picking some incoming freshmen.

A ruling against UT could lead to tighter requirements on affirmative action for schools across the nation or, some have predicted, an end to race-based affirmative action entirely.

Abigail Fisher, a white student who sued in 2008 after she was denied admission to UT, argued that the school’s admissions policy violates the Constitution’s promise of equal protection. During oral arguments in November, UT said the policy promotes a diverse student body that supports a richer college experience for all students.

One person, one vote

A third Texas case before the U.S. Supreme Court will look at boundaries legislators drew in 2013 to make all 31 state Senate districts roughly equal in population.

A similar approach is used in most states to set districts for everything from legislatures to school districts.

The case began when several rural residents sued, arguing that the approach violates the “one person, one vote” principle of the Constitution because it penalizes districts like theirs that have a higher number of eligible voters. Districts with large numbers of children, noncitizens and others who cannot vote provide disproportionate clout to residents who can cast a ballot, they told the court during oral arguments in November.

Opponents say changing the system would leave Hispanics and urban areas underrepresented.

School finance

Even before District Judge John Dietz of Austin ruled that the state’s method of funding public schools was unconstitutional and must be changed because it fails to provide enough money to adequately educate all students, it was known that the final decision would be made by the Texas Supreme Court.

Dietz, a now-retired Democrat, painstakingly made his case in a 404-page ruling that included 1,626 separate findings, leaving the all-Republican Supreme Court to wade through an additional 200,000 pages of trial records and another 1,000 pages in legal briefs.

In oral arguments in September, state lawyers asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case, arguing that the current system obviously works because Texas students continue to perform well compared to their peers in other states on national tests and in graduation rates, among other measures. Four plaintiff groups that represent about two-thirds of the state’s school districts — including Austin, Pflugerville and Hutto — pressed to preserve Dietz’s decision, saying it would provide the surest way to improve educational opportunities.

If the court sticks to the tighter schedules it adopted last year, a decision could come soon — though with a case this complicated, additional time would not come as a surprise.

Ongoing cases

Syrian refugees: Paxton’s attempts to bar the arrival of refugees from war-torn Syria fell flat when a federal judge in Dallas rejected his request for a temporary restraining order in December. The Obama administration has until Jan. 5 to respond to Paxton’s request for a trial and possible injunction halting the flow of refugees to Texas.

Planned Parenthood: The organization is awaiting final notification from Texas that it will be dropped as planned from Medicaid. Until then, its federal lawsuit challenging the move cannot go forward.

Voter ID: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that the Texas law requiring voters to show state-approved IDs violated the Voting Rights Act. The case was returned to District Court in Corpus Christi to determine if the Legislature intended to discriminate against minority voters when it approved the law.


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