Much-ballyhooed legislation to eliminate the "key man" system of picking grand juries died in a double-barreled blast last night on the floor of the Texas House. Your correspondent happened to be in the gallery for the event, which took overconfident proponents by surprise.
As soon as the bill was laid out, it became apparent Rep. Harold Dutton didn't have his votes. First, he preemptively gutted his own bill with an amendment to give judges an option to use either system. Then he pulled the bill down entirely - or rather, postponed it to a time-certain in 2016 - after other members cabined the change to Harris County on a 73-69 vote, expanded to counties over 500,000 by an amendment to that amendment.
Chairman Dutton is also House sponsor of the related senate bill, which is already sitting in Calendars, and there are some other grand jury captions floating around. So if some of those 73 votes can be flipped - perhaps not an impossible task - he can try again.
See coverage from the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas News.
MORE: At the Houston Chronicle, Lisa Falkenberg laid the debacle at Harold Dutton's feet:
I blame ego. And I blame the Democratic sponsor of the bill's House version, Dutton, for its catastrophic flop.That may or may not be true, but assigning blame won't pass the bill. In three weeks, the 84th session is over, and it will end without grand jury reform if supporters of the idea can't work together to accomplish it.
More than a month ago, a similar bill to end the Texas pick-a-pal system flew out of a Senate committee and passed the full Texas Senate, which this session is considered to be the more conservative body. It passed 31-0, garnering even the support of the Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite from Houston whose son is a Republican Harris County judge.
How? Well, the sponsor in that case, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, reached across the aisle for bipartisan support. With one concession that lets judges add names to the random pool of grand jurors, Whitmire gained the support of Republican judges and even state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, a former prosecutor who sometimes stands in the way of criminal justice reforms.
Even Republican Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson came out supporting Whitmire's bill, followed by the Houston Police Officers' Union.
Instead of taking the baton from Whitmire as soon as the Senate bill hit the House, Dutton started fresh with his own bill. He wouldn't explain to me why, except to say "I like my version better." I have to wonder if he also liked the look of his own name and bill number.
Dutton's version included a giant concession to a few judges he said voiced "concerns." Although the bill would have made random grand jury selection the default in Texas, it would have allowed judges to use pick-a-pal if they could express a good reason. That's very close to the current system we're trying to get rid of.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Dutton seemed unaware of the smaller concession Whitmire had made that addressed the same concerns from judges. He also didn't take kindly to Whitmire's suggestion of finding other surrogate sponsors in the House.
"He's free to do whatever the hell he likes," Dutton said. "This is the House over here. He runs the Senate, maybe, but he doesn't run the House."
Whitmire, meanwhile, has vowed to press on and to enlist other veteran Houston House members, such as Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Sylvester Turner, to help.
And Dutton does need help. It was obvious that he hadn't done his homework on the legislation. He hadn't worked the floor. He hadn't educated members on his bill. Even some members who tried to aid him in the debate struggled with basic facts of the bill and missed crucial talking points.
"He had not worked the delegation. He did not recruit people to help. It was horrible," Whitmire says.