TDCAA Legislative Update: Week 0

January 8, 2021

Is it too soon to wish it were already 2022?

New phone, who dis?

Welcome to the inaugural TDCAA legislative update for 2021. For those of you who are newly elected, this will be the first of a series of weekly updates from us in Austin that are intended to help you keep up with the important happenings at the state capitol. The goal of these updates is to make you the most well-informed person in your courthouse on the legislative issues that affect your offices and our court system at large. These updates will be emailed to elected prosecutors and other key office staff who track legislative issues; to add, delete, or correct an email on this distribution list, please email Shannon Edmonds. Note also that most content in these updates will be publicly archived on our Legislative webpage if you want to direct interested parties to that resource as well.

Mandatory training

Congratulations to all our new and returning elected prosecutors! Now it’s time for you to read the fine print on the job you just won, and that includes two mandatory training requirements.

The first training mandate is for all new and returning elected prosecutors who were just sworn in and it relates to the Public Information Act, as required by Gov’t Code §552.012. Every elected prosecutor—or that prosecutor’s public information officer if the office has one—must complete this open records course within 90 days of taking the oath of office. You old-timers might recall that we used to offer this at our December Elected Prosecutor Course, but the 2020 version of that training was postponed due to the pandemic, meaning that all of you who were just sworn in—whether for the first of fifth time—will probably need to take it online. Fortunately, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has created an online course that satisfies this training requirement; to complete it, visit this webpage.

The second mandatory training course relates to a prosecutor’s duty to disclose exculpatory and mitigating evidence and is required by Gov’t Code §41.111. Every new elected and assistant prosecutor—whether elected, appointed, or hired—has 180 days from the date of his or her election/hire/appointment to complete this required Brady training. Thanks to funding from the Criminal Justice Section of the State Bar and the Court of Criminal Appeals, prosecutors can complete the required training for FREE through our website. This course (from 2018) is required every four years; contact [email protected] if you aren’t sure whether or when you last took the class.

OK, now on to the main event!

Important legislative dates

If your Texas civics lessons have gotten a little fuzzy after all these years, never fear! We are here to remind you how this works. (Or doesn’t work, as the case may be.)

Every odd-numbered year, the Texas legislature convenes on the second Tuesday in January and meets in regular session for a maximum of 140 days. For the upcoming 87th Regular Session, the following dates might deserve a place on your 2021 calendar:

            Tuesday, January 12:              86th Legislature convenes (“Opening Day”)
            Tuesday, January 19:              Inauguration Day for the governor and lt. governor
            Friday, March 12:                   60th Day; final day to file most bills
            Monday, May 31:                   140th Day (“Adjournment Sine Die”); session ends
            Sunday, June 20:                     Deadline for governor to veto a bill
            Sunday, September 1:             General effective date for most legislation

Other things that will take place the first six weeks of the session include the release of the comptroller’s official revenue estimates (letting the state’s budget writers know how much they have to spend for FY 2022–23), the election of the speaker of the House, the adoption of House and Senate rules, the governor’s State of the State address, the chief justice’s State of the Judiciary address, the naming of committee members, and the filing of several thousand more bills. (Don’t worry, we will read them so you don’t have to.) The 60-day bill-filing deadline forces the first month or two of session to focus on drafting and filing bills; the remaining 80 days are then dedicated to passing or killing them, and that is when prosecutors who are interested in supporting or opposing legislation can have the greatest impact on the process.

Legislative involvement

This is probably a good point at which to remind you that you can contact Shannon for details on how you can get involved in the legislative process—even if it is only to get an up-close-and-personal view of the sausage-making for your first time. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease at the Capitol, so don’t be shy—your legislators need to hear from you!

That said, the coronavirus pandemic will make this a session like no other. Uncertainty regarding the public’s access to the capitol makes it impossible to plan ahead or to know what issues will be taken up when, much less in what format that will happen. We will keep you posted as news trickles out regarding rules for accessing the capitol and participating in committee hearings and such, but if you already know you are interested in coming to Austin during the session to get more involved, reach out to Shannon now to get on his list for whatever that may look like.

Capitol access

The state capitol, which has been closed to the public since March 2020 due to the pandemic, was finally opened to the public this past Monday—only to be locked up tight again on Wednesday in response to the rioting in the nation’s capital. The Big Pink Building then re-opened on Thursday with an increased security presence, and they will probably be taking things day by day from there.

The initial rules for public access to the capitol building are available here and include single-point entry/exit, recommended COVID-19 testing, unspecified capacity limits, and more. As for who’s in charge of all this, access to the capitol proper is the purview of the little-known agency called the State Preservation Board (SPB), which is chaired by the governor and includes the speaker, lite guv, and other legislators. What will make capitol access challenging this session is that the SPB can issue one set of general rules for the capitol complex, but the House and Senate will also adopt rules for own their members’ access and conduct, and all three sets of rules may conflict. (One example: Both House and Senate are planning to kick the media off their cushy floor-level seating and into the gallery above with the hoi polloi, but the House is permitting four times as many press observers as the Senate, and the Senate may bar media from committee rooms, unlike the House.) As a result, trying to interact with legislators in person in Austin will be even more of a chore than usual. If you are planning to make a trip to Austin for that purpose, feel free to contact Rob or Shannon ahead of time to get the latest information if you don’t want to make a potentially fruitless trip. At a minimum, we expect any in-person capitol visits for the first 60 days of the session to require face coverings, delays in entering due to capacity issues, and legislators or staff who may meet only by pre-arranged appointments.

Big issues and bill filings

For a glimpse at some of the issues the 87th Legislature may tackle this session, check out Topics for the 87th Legislature (PDF), a preview prepared by the House Research Organization. We’ll delve into some of these issues in greater detail in future updates, including some that may not be on your radar yet but should be. (How’s that for a teaser?)

We are also keeping up with daily bills filings at the capitol. For a list of bills filed to date that would amend the Penal Code or Code of Criminal Procedure or that fall into our subjective “Bills to Watch” category, use the links on the right-hand side of our Legislative page. We are currently tracking almost 400 bills in more than 40 different bill tracks for various topics, but these three lists will give you a good idea of what has been proposed so far. And if you ever have questions about an individual bill, feel free to contact Shannon.

COVID and the courts

We didn’t have much to add to our COVID-19 resource webpage over the final month of 2020, but some newsworthy things happened over the holiday period, including:

  • The Texas Supreme Court blocked restaurant and bar restrictions imposed in Travis County (and by extension, Bexar and El Paso Counties) over the New Year’s holiday after the governor and attorney general registered opposition;
  • The Texas Supreme Court, through its Office of Court Administration (OCA), has extended to January 11 the deadline for local administrative district judges to re-certify their COVID-19 local operating plans, with a continuing emphasis on limiting all in-person proceedings; and
  • OCA noted that “workers supporting the operations of the judicial system, including judges, lawyers, and others providing legal assistance” are identified as “essential critical infrastructure workers” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a fact that may become relevant to who is eligible for COVID-19 vaccination when Texas reaches Phase 1C. Those details have not been confirmed by the state—which has only addressed Phases 1A and 1B to date—but we will let you know when that decision is made.

Online CLE

Registration is now open for this year’s “Fundamentals of Prosecution,” an online course designed to give new (and new-ish) prosecutors the tools they need to effectively accomplish the mission of their offices. Starting January 11, the course consists of 13.5 hours of recorded training over core subjects such as bonds, plea-bargaining, search and seizure law, case analysis, and ethical decision-making. Additionally, optional live webinars are scheduled after each of four consecutive weekly content releases to allow attendees to confer with experienced TDCAA faculty regarding that week’s training (or prosecution issues in general). Prosecutors who complete the course will also receive four TDCAA publications (PredicatesDWI Investigation and ProsecutionPunishment and Probation, and Traffic Stops) by mail. Registration and additional information for this groundbreaking new course can be found here.

Quotes of the Month

“Senators have agreed to a much shorter opening day ceremony to reduce the time spent in a large gathering. The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties.”
            —Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), in a memo announcing the state Senate’s coronavirus protocols for the opening day festivities at the capitol next week.

“This will make it even harder for the public to engage in the legislative process. If you’re an activist on any given topic, it’ll be harder for you to have an impact.”
            —Brendan Steinhauser, GOP political consultant, on health and safety protocols that will limit public access to the state capitol during the upcoming session.

“I found out it’s not good to talk about my troubles. Eighty percent of the people who hear them don’t care, and the other 20 percent are glad you’re having trouble.”
            —Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Fame former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who passed away yesterday at the age of 93. #RIP