Monday, September 10, 2007

Chuck Rosenthal looks vulnerable in '08 Harris County DA race

After taking a closer look at this race, I think former Houston police chief C.O. Bradford has a great chance to knock off Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal in the 2008 elections. Rosenthal looks quite vulnerable to me, both based on the numbers and on the issues. If I were still doing oppo work I'd have a field day on this one.

Assuming they're the nominees, the race between Bradford and Rosenthal will be a pure grudge match. The pair's last major public confrontation turned into one of Houston's biggest public clusterf&#ks in the new century. Revisiting that incident this morning via Kuff, I'm reminded that the whole mess turned out more embarrassing for the DA than the defendant, who walked away smelling like a rose.

Rosenthal's minions convinced a grand jury to indict their boss' political enemy for minor perjury allegations while he was police chief regarding whether or not Bradford used profanity to a subordinate. The case was basically laughed out of the courtroom in 2003 when the judge, himself a former Harris County prosecutor, embarrassingly directed an acquittal before testimony even concluded. According to the Houston Press, the case against Bradford was so shoddy, the directed acquittal was a blessing:
If Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has a guardian angel, its earthly incarnation last week went by the name of state District Judge Brian Rains. Before the jurist mercifully pulled the plug on the trial of Houston Police Chief Clarence O. Bradford for aggravated perjury, the proceeding had produced an embarrassing swearathon with more potential to damage the D.A.'s future than that of his intended target.

Rains may be cut from the same prosecutorial cloth as Rosenthal, but the veteran criminal judge and Republican obviously has stayed closer to legal realities than his former colleagues in the district attorney's office. One prominent GOP courthouse source scoffed at what he called Rosenthal's "tunnel vision." "He looks and he doesn't really think about things. They got this thing called prosecutorial discretion, and you're not supposed to waste court time going after bullshit." The same source says he knows of no conservative Republicans of note who supported the flimsy case against Bradford.

University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray figures that Rosenthal owes Judge Rains a thank-you card for minimizing the damage to the prosecutor's reputation.
It wasn't just the judge and Republican pols who thought Rosenthal's case held no water, reported the Press' Tim Fleck, "After the dismissal, jurors indicated that all 12 on the panel would have voted to acquit Bradford had it gotten that far."

Even so, Kuff reminds us that this wasn't Rosenthals most embarrassing case, by a longshot. Social conservatives may still be grumpy that the DA's own, personal incompetent lawyering was a key reason the US Supreme Court shot down Texas' sodomy statute. The Houston Chronicle memorably reported at the time:
After watching the arguments, longtime court reporters wrote analyses comparing Rosenthal's performance unfavorably with that of his much more seasoned opponent, Paul Smith.

The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse wrote that the argument "proved to be a mismatch of advocates to a degree rarely seen at the court."

Stephen Henderson of Knight Ridder Newspapers listed among low points in Rosenthal's argument his response to a question from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about whether Texas bars gays from adopting children. (It does not.) "I don't know," Rosenthal replied.

Henderson wrote that Rosenthal's response "underscored how poorly his argument was going," and that the DA "had a difficult time articulating a rationale for the law."

USA Today's Joan Biskupic called the arguments "surprisingly lopsided," noting that Rosenthal "struggled" to defend the law and "had trouble answering questions about what harm the 30-year-old statute seeks to prevent."

Even Justice Antonin Scalia, who along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist made a mighty attempt to bolster Rosenthal's case, squinched up his face at one point and admitted, "I don't understand your argument."
Ouch! The Lawrence case cuts both ways against Mr. Rosenthal. Those who support gay rights will be offended by his animated, public opposition to legalized homosexuality, while homophobes may be angry that he's the guy whose blundering legal work shot down Texas' law.

That's not the only reason conservatives might be angry at Rosenthal. When the Texas Legislature passed a law in 2005 allowing law abiding Texans to carry a handgun in their car, the Harris DA was the first to defy them, announcing he'd continue to prosecute gun owners under the old standard. The Lege came back in 2007 and trumped him with stronger protections for gun owners in their cars.

Then of course, there's the HPD crime lab debacle, which was discovered on Bradford's watch. Kuff suggests Bradford should call for a "special master" for the crime lab, which Rosenthal opposes, and that would certainly position him nicely.

Either way, though, Rosenthal doesn't approach the crime lab debate with clean hands. He pretty much placed responsibility on his own shoulders in 2003 when, "The county's criminal district judges ... asked Rosenthal to recuse himself from investigating the matter, since it involves cases that were prosecuted by the D.A.'s office. He's refused to do so, generating howls of protest," reported the Houston Press. The same article noted that Rosenthal:
angered another minority group, the county's Hispanics, when he threatened criminal action against hospitals who were treating indigent illegal immigrants. And he failed to get convictions in one of the more high-profile police misconduct cases in recent years, the Kmart mass-arrest incident.
Chuck Rosenthal's biggest claim to fame might be that Harris County is the nation's primary source of death penalty cases. I don't know Bradford's position on capital punishment; I'd guess he's probably for it, so it could just be a wash. Even some death penalty supporters, though, think the incumbent's arrogance in capital cases merits criticism for refusing to admit even obvious errors.

A prime example came when Rosenthal refused to certify Josiah Sutton to be compensated for his wrongful conviction, even though DNA evidence proved they'd convicted the wrong man. Compare that to how the new Democratic DA in Dallas has handled wrongful convictions discovered through DNA.

Most Harris County voters support the death penalty, I believe, but few outside the DA's office (and perhaps some former crime lab workers) believe prosecutors should pursue the sanction 'by any means necessary,' even in the face of mitigating our countervailing evidence.

Most pols predict Democrat have the edge nationally in 2008 thanks to a mobilized base and a demoralized conservative movement. With Rosenthal atop the local ticket in Harris County, such a GOP slip might make it farther downstream than anyone imagined a short while ago.

If Harris Dems are smart they'll make sure there's a warm body running in every lower level race in the county. Giving voters a serious, well-funded alternative to Rosenthal should boost chances for judicial candidates and others down the ballot. Indeed it could pave the way, as BigJolly at the Lone Star Times dourly predicts, for a Dallas-style Democratic sweep in Harris County next year.

I predict Bradford's going to smoke Chuck Rosenthal at the polls in 2008. Maybe local Rs need to start looking for a primary opponent; if he's atop the Harris GOP ticket next year, things could get really ugly for them.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis! You connected all the dots. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Don't overlook the fact that Bradford was the police chief who presided over the crime lab debacle and submitted all those underfunded crime lab budgets despite requests for more money to correct a lot of the problems.

Anonymous said...

I feel like an idiot, especially considering the fact I am gay. I did not know Rosenthal argued Lawrence v. Texas. Understand I know the importance of the case, but I never looked into who argued it. Wait for it ... ... I sought out an internship at the DA's office and got it. I worked there for four months. No wonder an ADA once said to me "don't ask, don't tell." I'm going to throw up. They asked me to come back after I graduate. Not until Rosenthal is gone.

Anonymous said...

Bradfor now wants Rosenthals job and he and his backers are behind this latest campaign to get Rosenthal out of office, by these emails to a assistant, but what they forget to tell you is these emails took place back in the
1980's not recently.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe Rosethal is against gays. I think he is stuck in a sitation of being between a rock and a hard place. If he backs gays, others, who there are more of will be against him, and is he does not back gays, he gets the gay community against him. So, what do you suggest he do. His personal beliefs do not come to bear when he is performing what the public want. The public want. All the public, not just a small portion of it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@12:53 - Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. According to the Houston Chronicle, Rosenthal wrote to Stevens on Aug. 10, 2007, "The very next time I see you, I want to kiss you behind your right ear." That's not from the '80s.

As for the Lawrence case, anyone may criticize the stance he took no matter which way he went, it's true. However, the New York Times and other observers criticized him for being unprepared and a poor lawyer, which is a different kettle of fish.

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It will not succeed in reality, that's exactly what I think.