Thursday, March 07, 2024

Texas District Attorney, CCA races and the future of Texas criminal-justice reform

The ouster of Kim Ogg in Houston and the re-election of José Garza in Austin -- coupled with the ouster of 3 members of the Government Always Wins faction on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- signal a sea change in criminal-justice reform politics in Texas compared to a decade ago.

Increasingly, Democrats in Texas' largest counties favor reform and in both Harris and Travis made decisive choices for progressive candidates. This is a big switch from just a few cycles ago (e.g., when Kim Ogg herself was puzzlingly touted as a "progressive").

Meanwhile, Ken Paxton's slate of candidates who ousted Sharon Keller, Barbara Hervey and Michelle Slaughter are united in their willingness to overturn 150+ years of constitutional precedent to let the AG usurp authority of local prosecutors. The legal position for which Keller et. al. are being punished has been nontroversial in living memory. Now, insanely, it's considered a right-wing apostasy.

In essence, 3 stalwarts from the court's Government Always Wins faction have been replaced with members of a newly formed Lawlessness Caucus. God help anyone who thought things couldn't get worse!

For 2 decades, through about 2019, criminal-justice reform in Texas was a bipartisan issue -- evidence in favor of the "horseshoe theory" of politics in which left and right bend toward another at the extremes, creating opportunities for alliances between them against the political middle. 

But the latter days of the Trump administration, pandemic-era protests, and ultimately, the J6 uprising broke up that coalition, elevating culture-war issues above pragmatism. "Small government" conservatives increasingly were ousted as a more radical, Big Government Conservatism came to characterize the right in the late Trumpist era.

These trends reinforce my sense that nearly all signficant opportunities in Texas on criminal-justice reform in the near term will come at the local level, with state-level politics nearly impenetrable at the moment given the characters and ideologies at the top of the GOP food chain.

The only issue I see on the horizon that could buck that trend may be transparency. Conservative leaders from several camps appear to be coalescing around the issue as a priority for 2025, even if criminl-justice topics may not be at the top of the to-do list. Still, after the Uvalde inquiry, there's more of an opening on this subject than any other. If we witness anything like bipartisan #cjreform legislation in 2025, I'd bet dollars to donuts that'll be the topic.

Otherwise, to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose unto heaven. Judging from the tea leaves, criminal-justice reformers should focus on local issues for now, and 2025 at the #txlege will be a season for stepping up on defense.