Potential Prosecutor Penalties
On March 26, the Texas Senate unanimously passed a bill that would make prosecutors face stiffer penalties in the attorney disciplinary system if they fail to disclose exculpatory evidence to criminal-defense lawyers. The upper chamber sent Senate Bill 825 to the House, where a companion bill is waiting before the House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee. SB 825 prohibits an attorney grievance panel from issuing a private reprimand for a violation of rules in the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (TDRPC) requiring prosecutors to disclose evidence "that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense." It requires the Supreme Court to ensure the four-year statute of limitations for such violations begins when "a wrongfully imprisoned person is released from a penal institution." For more on the bill, see "Inadmissible," Texas Lawyer, March 18, 2013, page 3.
Fans of Texas open government can breathe a sigh of relief as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the Lone Star State’s Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). On March 25th, the high court denied a Writ of Certiorari in Diana Asgeirsson et al. v. Greg Abbott et al., a case in which a group of Texas government officials sued seeking a declaration that a provision of TOMA violated the 1st Amendment. Specifically, they contended that Texas Government Code 551.114 — which requires the meetings of most governmental bodies to be open to the public — is a content-based restriction on political speech, is unconstitutionally vague, and is overbroad. A trial judge in the Western District of Texas held that the law is constitutional because it is not vague or overbroad, does not restrict speech based on its content and requires disclosure rather than restricting speech. The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling on Sept. 25, 2012. The plaintiffs then took their appeal to high court. And with that, the litigation in this matter which has had a life span of about seven years appears to be over.
On March 27, without debate, the Texas Senate unanimously passed a bill that would tweak a funding source to provide more money for legal-aid services for indigent Texans. A companion bill is progressing through the Texas House. Currently, the funding, capped at $10 million, comes from civil penalties recovered by the Texas Attorney General in suits under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). Committee Substitute Senate Bill 635 would increase the cap to $50 million and expand the source to include civil restitution in actions under consumer-protection, public-health or general-welfare laws. The restitution would go to legal aid only if a court couldn’t disburse it to injured parties or funds remained after a payout to parties. [See "Two Bills Would Shift Money to Civil Legal Aid," Texas Lawyer, March 19, 2013]. The House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee on March 25 unanimously passed Committee Substitute House Bill 1445, the companion bill for CSSB 635. The committee recommended to send CSHB 1445 to another House committee that will decide if the bill will go on the House’s Local, Consent, and Resolutions Calendar. A bill on that calendar usually passes with little-to-no debate, unless five or more representatives ask to pull the bill off the calendar.