Last week I spoke briefly with State Representative Ruth Jones McClendon, Democrat of San Antonio representing the 120th District in the Texas Legislature.
Representative McClendon was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in a special election in 1996, and has since served on the Appropriations Committee for 10 years. She has also been the Chairwoman of the Rules and Resolutions Committee for the past three sessions. This past session was the Representative's 9th session serving 120th House District, but it marked a first of hers for many reasons.
See what Representative McClendon did for the first time this past session after 17 years of serving in the Texas Legislature.Every session presents itself with a myriad of stories of clashing political personalities and inside baseball politicking. This session was nothing new.
Representative McClendon has always triumphed on criminal justice issues as Vice-Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Articles I, IV, and V in the budget, but her relationship to the protecting the wrongfully accused is particularly special. In 2009 she authored HB 498 creating the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel.
This session she filed House Bill 166 which would have created a permanent innocence commission in Texas, (separate from the one she created in 2009 which is solely an advisory panel, with no real oversight and was only responsible for creating one report). whose sole job is to investigate wrongful convictions and attempt to find where the problems are in the process and in effect remedy the issues and eventually prevent innocent people from going to jail. Sounds completely reasonably, especially considering locking up innocent men and women costs the state an exorbitant amount of money (the state pays exonerees a lump some of money once they are let out of prison after being falsely accused).
Since the cost can be high it would make sense, from a completely amoral and monetary stance, to try to prevent this kind of situation from happening. Take in the fact that it is the morally necessary thing to do in our criminal justice system. HB 166 would be a logical step to try to prevent any such cases from ever happening again.
After HB 166 passed the House with Tea Party support it stalled in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Senator Whitmire, a democrat from Houston is the chair of the committee and Senator Joan Huffman serves as the Vice-Chair. During testimony, while the bill was being heard in committee, Senator Huffman said that she would not support the bill to the people who had spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
In an explosive moment Cory Session, the brother of Timothy Cole – a man who died in prison for a crime he did not commit – stormed out of the committee hearing. Senator Huffman, despite efforts to compromise by Senator Ellis the Senate sponsor to the bill, essentially pulled the rug out from the bill negotiations, no less in front of witnesses trying to testify in support of it, whose freedom had been stolen from them.
Senator Huffman said in committee that there was nothing anyone can do to get her support of the bill. A bill aimed at preventing wrongful convictions, with strong bipartisan support in the House was dead on arrival in the Senate Committee.
When I asked Representative Ruth Jones McClendon about his incident she said that in 17 years she “had never seen this much disrespect given to fellow colleagues and to witnesses.” Representative McClendon, again, not one for making a lot of enemies decided to do something she had never done in her 17 years serving in the Texas Legislature. She decided to call points of order on Senator Huffman's bills that had sustained points of order. This procedural maneuver that essentially stops the bill in its tracks, killing the legislation with it.
Representative McClendon makes an eloquent argument for this, in her must read editorial that was published after the Senate Criminal Justice Committee scuffle. It is worth the reread here:
House Bill 166 passed in the House on April 24th with strong bipartisan support. It was sent to the Senate, where a committee hearing was not scheduled until May 14th. In the meantime, the Senator who is vice-chair of the Criminal Justice Committee began a personal campaign against this Bill, distributing literature designed to persuade the Committee members and other Senators in advance why she thought the state should not pursue the truth about our criminal justice system. In essence, her message to the Legislators, prior to hearing public testimony in committee, was that we have made some reforms already, and they ought to be sufficient.
Several exonerees traveled to Austin and spent a day waiting to offer their 3 minutes of personal testimony, hoping to be heard by the full Committee. By the time the Bill was called late in the afternoon, the Senator was serving as chair of the meeting, without a quorum present. Before the exonerees were ever allowed to speak, the Senator recited a litany of changes made in the Texas criminal justice system, even going so far as to say she had “heard the stories of the exonerees several times” and reiterated her opposition. Imagine being a patient with terminal cancer who was misdiagnosed. Imagine coming to testify to a Senate Committee and urge the state to pursue reforms in the medical system to prevent malpractice and assure improvements in proper diagnosis of serious, life-threatening medical diseases so that fewer persons would have their years cut short and lose their lives due to someone else's mistake. Imagine a Senator saying to this cancer patient, “the state has been making progress in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer for many years. You just need to understand, we're sorry you are going to die because of a misdiagnosis, but we don't need any more oversight of the medical profession to determine where and when and why mistakes are being made, in order to take corrective action. We are doing enough reforms and we just don't need that kind of oversight.” Just imagine.
So because of this lack of empathy and respect for the process, Representative McClendon took part in a political parliamentary maneuver that was supported by her colleagues in the House. “I didn't think what she did was right,” the representative told me. As mentioned in her editorial, she said that the bills at least deserve to heard in committee, and that she was “exercising the same prerogative concurring (her) position on (Senator Huffman's) bills. She also made it clear that she did not launch her personal campaign against the Senator's bills before they were ever heard in committee.
She also told me that she is planning to refile the bill again, and work with key Senators, including Senator Whitmire and Senator Ellis. And yes Representative McClendon is definitely running for re-election, “God willing,” she told me.
Hats off to a very brave woman with decades of experience and integrity. Thanks Representative for sticking up for the wrongfully convicted and for continuing to fight for the rights of everyone.