As I write this, we are bumping up against July 4, 2015, Independence Day. The Rusty Duncan Seminar is one week past and I’m settling into a new routine of my temporary role as President of this fine organization. This past week has been an historic one for our country as well—the Supreme Court has issued rulings on landmark issues including fair housing discrimination, same sex marriage, and the Affordable Care Act. I also witnessed our President eulogize one of the nine persons slain in a Charleston Church during a Bible study by a young man with apparent racist motivations.
Whatever your position on issues mentioned, I think you’ll agree that the pivot point for much of the change was our judicial branch. As a country, we committed to the principle that the majority should not control the limitations on individual freedom. On racial issues, it is remarkable to see how much our judicial branch has evolved in a relatively short period of time. In my lifetime, it was once constitutional for states to prohibit interracial marriage. In my lifetime, it was considered constitutional to have separate but equal as a doctrine for public policy. In the year of my birth (1963) Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. A year later, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Yet, even as change was officially made law, there was resistance, particularly in the South. It took multiple court decisions to give these ideals teeth so that the policies of racial divide would be weakened. The process continues to this day.
Why do I bring up these issues? I see criminal justice in Texas evolving as well, both in our courts and in our legislative and executive branch. Criminal justice issues are often a front burner issue for politicians, but it is happening. In Texas, the past two legislative sessions have ushered in change into the criminal justice process. Forensic science is now under consistent legislative and judicial scrutiny. Junk science has been, at least partially, exposed and is no longer admissible in criminal prosecutions. Defendants have more access to discovery to prepare their cases for trial than ever before. Funding for training capital attorneys has never been higher. TCDLA and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Project are at the forefront of these changes. Past President Bobby Mims personally fought for the Michael Morton Act during the 2013 legislative session, burning many hours in the tunnels of the Legislature in Austin. This past session, our lobbyists Allen Place and Patricia Cummings (along with their team) worked hard to ensure that the Morton Act would not be altered.
The motivating fuel for these reforms is the recent exposure of repeated mistakes, abuses, and travesties within the Texas criminal justice system. Our state leads the nation in exonerations for wrongfully convicted citizens. One only can wonder how many more innocent persons are inside our Texas prisons. The blatant violation of Brady by some prosecutors is finally being taken seriously. There is new legislation regarding access to DNA testing by those seeking a review of their convictions. We have to keep pushing. Apathy is the enemy of successful reform. Encourage young lawyers to become active in TCDLA and provide us with a continuing stream of energy to keep working for a more just system in Texas. These fights are at the heart of our Independence as a state and as a nation.