Sen. Joan Huffman’s (R-Houston) Senate Bill (SB) 20 targets district and county attorneys if they adopt formal or informal policies or practices that prohibit or limit the enforcement of state laws. Rep. David Cook (R-Mansfield) has filed the House’s priority version.
Huffman’s proposal is one of 30 Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has designated legislative priorities for this session; her bill mirrors House efforts to “rein in” what Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) has described as a problem of “rogue district attorneys.”
In the wake of a national debate over criminal justice policy reform, certain criminal district attorneys in Texas and elsewhere have at times shunned state laws they oppose and refused to prosecute certain “low-level crimes” such as shoplifting, burglary, and possession of illegal substances.
A group of Texas district attorneys announced last year that they would not prosecute violations of Texas’ Human Life Protection Act — known as the Roe “trigger ban” — that makes most abortions a criminal offense. The exception is in case of a threat to the life or bodily health of the mother. Some have also publicly stated they will not prosecute those who seek or perform medical sex change procedures on children.
At least one Texas district attorney, Mark Gonzalez of Nueces County, is already facing a legal petition for his removal under current law, which allows for the removal of district attorneys for incompetence and misconduct. First elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, Gonzalez is alleged to have mishandled a murder case, improperly dismissed criminal charges, and misused government resources.
Huffman, a former Harris County district court judge, also introduced SB 21 to establish a timeline for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC) to process complaints against judges as well as expand the commission’s ability to discipline judges for violating state law governing bail bonds.
Though Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation in 2021 prohibiting personal recognizance (PR) bonds for defendants charged with certain violent crimes, some judges have continued to award PR bonds in apparent violation of the law.
Last year, Judge Natalia Cornelio of the 351st District Criminal Court in Harris County awarded a PR bond to Roy Don Thompson on charges of assaulting a pregnant woman. Thompson, whose criminal history included assaults, terroristic threats, and robberies, is now a wanted fugitive from the law.
Judges publicly sanctioned by SCJC may be suspended without pay and prohibited from serving as visiting judges after retirement.
In 2022, the SCJC referred Harris County Criminal Court Judge Franklin Bynum to the Texas Supreme Court for possible removal, though he lost his primary election that March. Complaints from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office allege that Bynum ordered the sheriff’s office not to collect DNA samples from defendants and demonstrated bias against victims of domestic assaults, but Bynum remained on the bench until the completion of his term at the end of the year.
As vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Huffman has also sought to expand a state law that protects funding for police to also include the district attorneys and county attorneys responsible for criminal prosecutions.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.