Austin American-Statesman. May 7, 2021.

Editorial: Texas GOP lawmakers trust you with a gun — but not with the vote

Texas Republican lawmakers say we should assume a person walking down the street, gun holstered to hip, is a law-abiding citizen entitled to carry that gun. No need for a permit. No reason for a cop to stop and ask what that person is up to.

“Citizens need to be trusted,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, emphasized Wednesday before the Senate passed House Bill 1927, which would allow Texans to carry a handgun in public without the license, background check and firearm training currently required by state law.

“Do we believe people and our fellow man?” Schwertner added with a hint of exasperation. “Or should we assume them guilty until proven innocent?” He argued that a person exercising a basic constitutional right should be treated with the presumption they are acting lawfully, and allowed to proceed accordingly, without the government placing any speedbumps in their path.

Amazing how quickly that logic evaporated just 24 hours later, when the rights being debated at the state Capitol belonged to Texas voters.

Indeed, Republican lawmakers say, we cannot assume a person casting a ballot is a law-abiding citizen. We need to see a photo ID. We need to eliminate drive-through voting and restrict mail-in voting. We need documentation from anyone who helps a voter who has a disability or a language barrier. And we need to grant even greater access to partisan poll watchers who stake out polling places to scrutinize the legitimacy of voters and ballot counts.

“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen in order to try and protect and secure these elections,” Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, said Thursday evening in defense of SB 7, which adds new voting restrictions in a state that is already among the most difficult places to vote in America. The House advanced a version of the bill on a party-line vote at 3 a.m. Friday, quite literally chipping away at our democracy in the dead of night.

The hypocrisy on display this week was galling but not surprising. When it’s a Texan carrying a gun, GOP lawmakers assume the best, even as our nation grapples with horrific mass shootings and the drumbeat of everyday gun violence. When it’s a Texan trying to vote, GOP lawmakers assume the worst and set up more hurdles, even in the stark absence of substantial voter fraud.

Republican lawmakers are governing from the extremes instead of doing the difficult work of balancing individual and community interests — the serious work we should expect of elected officials. Yes, gun ownership is a Constitutional right, but communities expect reasonable guardrails for everyone’s safety. Yes, we need elections we can trust, but the security measures must be crafted with care, mindful that voting is a Constitutional right.

Instead, GOP lawmakers have weaponized both issues to excite their base, while showing blithe indifference to the burdens they’re imposing on Texans. In nixing the handgun license requirement, Republican lawmakers ignored the pleas of police chiefs and law enforcement agencies who said this would make officers’ jobs more difficult. They disregarded studies that found other states saw a 13% to 15% increase in violent crime rates a decade after dropping a similar handgun permit requirement. Schwertner even scoffed at recent polling by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune showing 59% of Texans opposed the unlicensed carry of firearms.

“You can word a poll in a certain way that usually engenders a response that you’re seeking,” he told one senator who highlighted the poll results. “Mark Twain said it best: ‘You have lies, damned lies and statistics.’ And right after that would probably be polls.”

A similarly stubborn denial of the truth has accompanied the Texas GOP’s push to pass “election integrity” bills — despite the fact no one could identify any substantial voter fraud in last year’s elections in Texas. No instances of ballot harvesting or vote tampering found by the bipartisan Harris County Elections Security Task Force, which reviewed hundreds of complaints. No bounties paid by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who offered up to $1 million in rewards for proof of election malfeasance.

No matter. Distrust of the 2020 election results is now a defining feature of the Republican Party. Fealty to the big lie is the GOP loyalty test. Passing new voting restrictions is good for the party — even if it’s terrible for Texas voters and destructive for democracy.

Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, noted that many people who testified last month said SB 7 would disproportionately hurt voters of color and those who have disabilities. “We heard more people testify against the bill than (for) the bill,” González said during the debate Thursday night. “Our job is to pass legislation for our state, for our constituents. We’re here to pass policy that they want, not force legislation on them that they don’t agree with.”

Republican lawmakers beg to differ.

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Dallas Morning News. May 5, 2021.

Editorial: Texas wisely ends its indefensible policy of barring clergy from the execution chamber

After two years of barring all spiritual advisers from the state’s execution chamber, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has wisely reversed course. On April 21, the TDCJ announced a new policy allowing the condemned to be accompanied by a spiritual adviser of their choosing at the time of death, provided the adviser passes a routine security and background check.

This is an overdue and welcome return to acknowledging the religious rights and basic humanity of those the state puts to death through lethal injection. However, as a newspaper that’s long been opposed to the death penalty, we believe that there’s much more work to do — especially in regard to post-conviction DNA testing.

We first called on the state to end its ill-advised policy in June 2020 when we made it clear “we believe that to deny the condemned the right to have a religious leader present is to deny their humanity.” The TDCJ’s decision is therefore gladly received. But how we arrived here and what this decision means for the 203 Texas inmates currently on death row, five of whom are scheduled to be executed by year’s end, merits further scrutiny.

The controversy began back in March 2019 when the TDCJ denied convicted murderer and one of the infamous “Texas Seven,” Patrick Murphy, his request to have a Buddhist spiritual adviser in the execution chamber. At the time, the state policy was that only TDCJ-employed chaplains — either Christian or Muslim — were allowed in the chamber. Murphy argued that was religious discrimination.

The Supreme Court agreed, halting Murphy’s execution and suggesting one of two remedies: Either allow all spiritual advisers — regardless of faith or religious affiliation — into the execution chamber; or allow none. The TDCJ chose the latter remedy and unwisely barred all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber.

The state seemed to follow the advice of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote in a concurring opinion at the time, “governmental discrimination against religion — in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech — violates the Constitution.” The choice of remedy is up to the state, he continued. But “What the state may not do, in my view, is allow Christian or Muslim inmates but not Buddhist inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room.”

While we agree with Kavanaugh that allowing Christian and Muslim advisers into the execution chamber but not advisers from other faiths and traditions was discriminatory, we disagree that barring all religious advisers was a valid or constitutional remedy.

Indeed, on June 16, 2020, just over an hour before the scheduled execution of Texas inmate Ruben Gutierrez for the 1998 murder of an 85-year-old Brownsville woman during a robbery, the Supreme Court stepped in and granted Gutierrez, a Catholic, a reprieve so that a lower court could consider his request to allow a chaplain in the execution chamber.

With the lower court’s decision still pending, the TDCJ reversed the policy, making it a moot point. But what seems certain is that the now 43-year-old Gutierrez — who to this day says he is innocent of capital murder and that a DNA test of existing evidence will prove it — would have been executed in 2020 had the Supreme Court not stepped in.

In March, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of Gutierrez’s request for DNA testing. But the state filed an appeal, arguing, in part, that under Texas law his case is ineligible for DNA testing because as “a party to the crime” of capital murder he is subject to the death penalty whether or not he was the actual killer, or simply involved in a robbery that resulted in capital murder.

His attorney tells us that, as a man of faith, Gutierrez is relieved by the fact that, if he is to be executed, he will receive the “spiritual support” that he and his family, as devout Catholics, have requested.

But it’s fair for concerns to extend further than that. It seems clear that Gutierrez ended up on death row, as opposed to life in prison, in part based on the belief that he was the person who repeatedly and brutally stabbed an 85-year-old woman. DNA tests aren’t perfect, and one of their shortcomings is that the lack of DNA doesn’t necessarily prove innocence. Rather, DNA found at the scene of a crime tells only part of the story of the crime. In this case, Gutierrez believes a test will show not his but someone else’s DNA on the fingernail scrapings taken from the victim after her murder, and we believe it will only serve justice to know precisely what the DNA test shows. In that way, we can form a more complete understanding of what happened.

As we’ve pointed out in the past, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent and overturn wrongful convictions, of the 375 people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing to date, 130 (more than 34%) were convicted of murder. Twenty one were on death row.

But total exoneration is not the only alternative. Since 1976, when Texas reinstated the death penalty, more than 230 individuals sentenced to death have had their sentences or convictions commuted or reduced. According to his attorney, Gutierrez, a man who has already spent more than half his life behind bars, still has faith that the state will grant his request, and the result will save his life.

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Kerrville Daily Times. May 5, 2021.

Editorial: Grateful for Hispanic influence in Kerr County

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory over French military forces at Puebla in 1862. While this is the traditional reason for celebration, the special day has become something more. The celebration of Mexican culture is honoring the richness of people in a sustainable, living way.

“Cinco de Mayo is a celebration that we have had since I was a kid,” Lala Flores, one of the organizers of the Cinco de Mayo celebration at Kerrville’s Doyle Community Center pavilion Wednesday afternoon, said. “It’s a celebration the Hispanics feel is a part of them, because it belongs to a part of Mexico and all that happened.”

There are many area Hispanic artists, business owners and civic leaders who have contributed to the overall culture of Kerrville.

And this is not the only day observed each year; there’s also Sept. 15. Día de la Independencia. Mexico’s independence from Spain.

“It’s really a Hispanic celebration, and they come together to party. … I’ve been celebrating this for many, many years, here in Kerrville as well as when we moved out of town,” Flores said.

This year had “a really good turn out for us,” she said, with attendees sipping mangonadas, trying out kids games handmade by Clifton Fifer, listening to music from DJ Arnold Garcia and savoring the buffet of food served for an early supper. Paper flowers decorated the pavilion and the hair of women attending. Starbursts hung from fencing along one side. Upbeat, Hispanic music that spanned decades played while those taking on the cake walk danced a cumbia until the music stopped.

“I came onto the program in June, so we started doing all this. I think I can bring more to the culture,” Flores said.

While this Cinco de Mayo has passed, we look forward to the Sept. 15 celebration that won’t be affected by COVID-19 in the same way it was last fall.

Let’s remember as we savor the nectar of a margarita and chow down on succulent carnitas to honor the contributions Mexican culture and those of that heritage are making to the Kerr community.

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San Antonio Express-News. May 6, 2021.

Editorial: Governor, where is the evidence at Freeman?

Gov. Greg Abbott owes the public either an explanation or an apology about the serious and unfounded allegations of child abuse he made last month outside Freeman Coliseum.

He either lied about the conditions there, or he eagerly used the unfounded allegations as a photo op.

Either way, the governor has shown he’s willing to use children and the hot-button issue of immigration to satisfy political ambitions. Having lied during February’s winter storm that renewable energy was the reason for the power outage, Abbott has affirmed there’s no meat too red, or raw, to serve the base. And that was before Abbott, last week, perpetuated the lie that President Joe Biden’s climate change plan would reduce the number of hamburgers Americans can, annually, eat.

The Biden administration is using the Freeman Coliseum as a temporary facility for unaccompanied immigrant minors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Refugee Resettlement is operating the facility. Abbott saw it as a backdrop to level the ugliest of accusations, the harming of a child.

Abbott said complaints were made to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission on the morning of April 7. Based on nothing more, he called a press conference for late afternoon at the coliseum. It may have been the first time that within hours of a report of alleged child abuse, but before any investigation, a Texas governor traveled to the site where the alleged abuse occurred and demanded it be closed. All without touring the site or speaking to those in charge.

It was only after Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who volunteers every weekend at the shelter, followed Abbott to the microphones and disputed his allegations, that Abbott toured the shelter. She said during his tour he was a gracious and concerned visitor who asked questions. But in none of his questions or comments inside the coliseum did he repeat the allegations he made outside the coliseum.

Outside, Abbott had called the facility a “health and safety nightmare.” Inside, he thanked the volunteers for their work and he received a pair of standing ovations from the children, Clay-Flores said.

It has been a month and nothing has come of Abbott’s allegations. They’ve, reportedly, not even come up in the Texas Department of Public Safety’s briefings.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has called the accusations “completely false.” Without any evidence or further explanation, it’s hard to disagree with Wolff’s assessment.

Any and all accusations of child abuse and neglect must be investigated thoroughly. But, in real time, Abbott appears to be playing politics.

During the Trump administration, as well as the Obama administration, there were thousands of complaints about sexual abuse at migrant shelters. Why has Abbott raised his voice now in this instance? Why raise doubts about an operation that many in the San Antonio community have praised as a model and humane response to an influx of migrants?

Either out of whole or the thinnest of cloths, the Texas governor used explosive, unfounded child abuse and neglect allegations to score political points.

Maybe that qualifies as “good” politics, these days. For us, it’s not just wrong, but vile.

END