Sen. Rodney Ellis

Mixed reaction to Holder’s comments on Texas voting laws

Texas political leaders are commenting on remarks made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder regarding Texas voting laws.

Holder told members of the National Urban League on Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice will ask a federal court to require Texas to ask for permission before changing its election laws. The move follows a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that essentialy eliminated the use of a pre-clerance provision of the Voting Rights Act for states with a history of discrimination.

“Once again, the Obama Administration is demonstrating utter contempt for our country’s system of checks and balances, not to mention the U.S. Constitution,” Republican Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement released in response. “This end-run around the Supreme Court undermines the will of the people of Texas, and casts unfair aspersions on our state’s common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process.”

Democratic State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston had a different take on Holder’s announcement.

“I applaud Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to join the lawsuit that would require Texas to submit all voting law changes for preclearance for the next decade,” Ellis said in his own statement released to the media.  “Anyone who thinks Texas doesn’t need continued oversight simply hasn’t been paying attention.”

Ellis added that, in his view, Texas has clearly shown a repeated and documented history of discrimination against minority voters, pointing to last year when he said Texas was singled out as the only state to pass redistricting maps which were deliberately discriminatory.

“This is hopefully just the first step,” Ellis said.  “Congress needs to take action [to] revamp the Voting Rights Act to create a formula which takes into account current and historical discrimination and bias while meeting the requirements the Supreme Court has set out.  Otherwise, the voting rights of millions of Americans are in peril.”

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was also quick to respond to Holder’s comments.

“By first going around the voters and now the Supreme Court, Attorney General Holder and President Obama’s intentions are readily transparent,” Cornyn said in a released statement. ” This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda. Texans should not — and will not — stand for the continued bullying of our state by the Obama Administration.”

Bipartisan DNA legislation clears Senate

The Texas Senate unanimously passed a bill to ensure that all evidence in death penalty cases is DNA tested before they go to trial. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) garnered support from both parties, including Attorney General Greg Abbot. Ellis and Abbot touted the legislation as a collaborative effort to create a “more fair, reliable and just Texas criminal justice system.” 

In an interview with Capital Tonight last month, Abbott said, “We need to get all that [DNA testing] done upfront, to make sure that we convict the right person, or if the DNA evidence shows the person was innocent, they are released.”

Sen. Ellis released this statement following today’s vote:

“This modest but vitally important reform will help reduce the possibility that the ultimate mistake is made with someone receiving the ultimate penalty. The fact of the matter is that we have already dodged just such a bullet thanks to advocates for the wrongfully convicted. We know that, sometimes, we get the wrong person. The Michael Morton case and dozens of examples are painful reminders of that fact. SB 1292 will ensure we avoid both the possibility of the wrong person serving years on Death Row and the far worse specter of putting to death an innocent person.”

 

Senate honors wrongfully convicted Texan

The Texas Senate honored wrongfully convicted Texan Michael Morton Wednesday.

Senate Resolution 477 recognizes Morton’s “courage and grace” during the more than two decades he was inprisoned for the death of his wife, Christine. DNA evidence recently exonerated Morton.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), who chairs the board for the Innocence Project, led the chamber during the recognition.

“Mr. President, members, today I have the honor of introducing an incredible man with a story of courage and perseverance most of us cannot even comprehend,” Ellis said.

He echoed the sentiments of the Dallas Morning News, which selected Morton as one of its 2012 Texans of the Year.

“Members, Mr. Morton could have harbored incredible bitterness and simply tried to rebuild his own life outside of the spotlight, concentrating on himself and his future,” Ellis told senators assembled. “That would be understandable. Instead, he is using the stature he has gained as a living testimony of the flaws of our criminal justice system to enact real change and prevent other Texans from sharing his fate.”

Sen. Ellis and Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) recently filed comprehensive discovery reform legislation which they say would create a fairer, more reliable and transparent Texas’ justice system.