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Beto didn’t make it to the Senate, but massive turnout turned important Texas courts blue


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Beto didn’t make it to the Senate, but massive turnout turned important Texas courts blue

  • Billionaire pushes Marsy’s Law to victory in six states, despite concerns that It threatens defendants’ rights

  • After victory in Louisiana, Oregon is now the only state using split juries to convict people

  • Oregon lawmakers say they will end split jury verdicts

  • Civilian Complaint Review Board prepares its case against the officer who killed Eric Garner

  • Black sheriffs elected in North Carolina’s largest counties

In the Spotlight

Beto didn’t make it to the Senate, but massive turnout turned important Texas courts blue

Beto O’Rourke may have lost his Senate bid to unseat Ted Cruz, but among the many down-ballot beneficiaries of historically high Democratic  turnout were judicial candidates in the state’s big cities. Harris County, Texas, home of Houston, saw 59 of its judges voted out, in what the Houston Chronicle described as a “Democratic rout.” Democratic candidates “won each of 23 seats on the district judge bench, all 13 on the family court, all four for county civil judge, all 15 county misdemeanor judges and all four county probate judges.” [Zach Despart / Houston Chronicle]

In the misdemeanor courts, the election of 15 new judges, out of 16, could significantly alter the future of a federal lawsuit challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. [Zach Despart / Houston Chronicle] All 16 judges were defendants in the lawsuit and all but two fought reform (those two were also among the 15 voted out). [Maura Ewing / The Appeal and Texas Observer]   The Houston Chronicle, in an editorial shortly before the election, endorsed the challengers in misdemeanor court judge races, citing the county’s cash bail system, described by a federal judge as unconstitutional, and incumbent judges’ opposition to bail reform. See also Our newsletter of Oct. 17, 2018, looked at the efforts to vote out judges complicit in the worst excesses of the system of mass incarceration.

Of the 59 new judges who will take the bench in the different levels of Harris County’s judicial system, an unprecedented 19 are Black women. Their election makes the local judiciary more representative of the county, one of the country’s most diverse. Nationally, women of color are underrepresented among judges. [Hannah Smothers / Cosmopolitan] A 2015 report by the American Constitution Society found that while women of color make up 20 percent of the nation’s population they are only 8 percent  of state court judges.

Another notable newly elected judge is Franklin Bynum, who was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Bynum, a former public defender, ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for criminal court judge in Houston in April. Speaking with the Texas Observer in April, Bynum said he has seen how the courts work for “the police, the bondsmen and the prosecutors, and people are just the raw material to be chewed up.” His platform called for reining in the use of cash bail and the fees and fines imposed on the poor. [Gus Bova / Texas Observer] Bynum told The Appeal in April that, “Judges were using high bail amounts as de facto detention orders for people charged with these minor offenses. They used bail as an instrument of oppression.” [Melissa Gira Grant /The Appeal]

The Democrats also had remarkable success in the state appellate courts. Prior to the election, of the state’s 14 appeals courts 11 were controlled by Republicans. Three had no Democrats on them at all. The 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas had not a Democrat serve on it since 1992. [Emma Platoff /Texas Tribune] After the election, 8 of the 13 judges on the court will be Democrats. It was one of four appeals courts that the Democrats flipped. [Emma Platoff / Texas Tribune] The “solid Republican” Third Court of Appeals, which covers Austin and therefore has jurisdiction over challenges to laws passed by the Texas legislature, saw a majority of Democrats voted in. Previously, all four justices and the Chief Justice were Republicans. All four justices were voted out. [Yantis Green / San Angelo Live]

One Harris County juvenile judge who was voted out made his feelings about it known in an unusual way. On Wednesday, Harris County Juvenile Court judge Glenn Devlin released nearly all the young defendants who appeared before him, reportedly asking them before letting them go whether they planned to kill anyone. Devlin’s actions caught people by surprise because of his history of harsh sentencing—Devlin and one other Harris County juvenile judge together accounted for more than twenty percent of all young people sent to juvenile prison last year. The Chronicle reported that these two judges “not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, but they also sent them younger and for less-serious offenses” than the third juvenile court judge in the county.  Ninety-six percent of the children sent to juvenile prison from Harris County were children of color. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle] All three of the judges lost election by more than 10 percentage points. One public defender told the Chronicle that Devlin explained his actions by saying it was what the voters wanted. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

Stories From The Appeal

Marsy’s Law for All founder Henry Nicholas (R) with his mother Marcella Leach (L) attend the 2009 National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims in Los Angeles, California. [Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]

Billionaire Pushes Marsy’s Law To Victory in Six States, Despite Concerns That It Threatens Defendants’ Rights. Victims’ rights campaign spent more than $70 million nationwide, with more than half of that spent in Florida. [Melissa Gira Grant]

After Victory in Louisiana, Oregon Is Now The Only State Using Split Juries to Convict People. As in Louisiana, Oregon’s practice is rooted in its own rich history of white supremacy. [George Joseph]

Stories From Around the Country

Oregon lawmakers say they will end split jury verdicts: After Tuesday’s election, when Louisiana voted to end the practice of non-unanimous jury verdicts for felony convictions, Oregon remained the only state where the practice endured. Now Oregon state legislators have said they will introduce two bills in the 2019 legislative session to end non-unanimous juries. One would amend the state constitution and another would refer the question to voters. The Democratic House Majority Leader has said that while the constitutional amendment will ultimately be the best solution, she is also looking for a statutory change that can take effect more quickly. The Oregon District Attorneys Association supports a change to the law though some prosecutors continue to support its use. Oregon’s law dates back to 1934, a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its power in the state and anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments were pervasive. [Conrad Wilson / Oregon Public Broadcasting]

Civilian Complaint Review Board prepares its case against the officer who killed Eric Garner: It has been four years since NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death and Pantaleo remains employed by the NYPD, on desk duty. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict him in 2014 and federal prosecutors are still to reach a decision about whether to bring charges. The NYPD, which for four years said it was waiting for federal prosecutors to decide before taking any disciplinary action, announced over the summer that it would no longer wait. Pantaleo is expected to face a trial before an administrative judge from the Police Department. Lawyers at the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent agency responsible for investigating police misconduct and presenting recommendations to the police commissioner, will prosecute the case. CCRB lawyers have asked a judge to grant them access to the grand jury testimony from 2014, arguing that witnesses’ memories have faded over the years making the transcripts of their testimony necessary for the case. Kerry S. Jamieson, assistant general counsel at CCRB, wrote in the filing that without access to that testimony, “the prosecutors will not be able to present the full facts, which could result in an unfair and unjust outcome.” [J. David Goodman / New York Times]

Black sheriffs elected in North Carolina’s largest counties: North Carolina’s seven largest counties all elected Black sheriffs, five of them for the first time ever.  All seven will replace white men, many of them long-time incumbents. The ousted incumbents include BJ Barnes, sheriff of Guilford County for 24 years; Donnie Harrison in Wake County; and Bill Schatzmann, five-term incumbent in Forsyth County. Paula Dance, in Pitt County, became North Carolina’s first Black woman sheriff in Pitt County. [Joe Killian / North Carolina Policy Watch] Before the election, The Appeal reported on law enforcement abuse of Black residents of Wake County under Sheriff Donnie Harrison and Harrison’s cooperation with ICE through the agency’s 287(g) program.

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