The Next Redistricting Target: Ronnie Earle?

Tom Craddick hatches a plan to redraw the lines for Texas' elected prosecutors

The Next Redistricting Target: Ronnie Earle?
Illustration By Doug Potter

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the state Capitol, redistricting has once again appeared to stalk the hallways of the statehouse. And even after months of contention over the redrawing of congressional seats, you may not have seen anything yet.

House Speaker Tom Craddick has begun drafting a plan to redraw the district boundaries of Texas' 300-odd felony and misdemeanor elected prosecutors -- district attorneys, county attorneys, and the like -- as part of a larger plan to redo court jurisdictions in the state. On the surface, the idea is to clear up anomalies in those jurisdictions that have come up in the century and a half since Reconstruction, when carpetbagger Republicans were said to have abused prosecutorial privileges from their seat of power in Austin. But this being the capital city -- where people don't pee without declaring party affiliation -- there is, of course, a partisan angle as well.

First, let's do the numbers. According to Rob Kepple, the gentlemanly executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association (official voice of the state's prosecutors), at last count there were 155 felony and 177 misdemeanor prosecutors in Texas, excluding the feds. (Some district and county attorneys represent more than one of Texas' 254 counties.) Kepple, a former assistant Harris Co. DA, doesn't have hard numbers, but he estimates that, while Republicans have taken over the statehouse, Democrats still hold the courthouse, with 60% or more of the elected prosecutors' offices in Texas. While Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio all have Republican DAs, Democrats remain strong in the Rio Grande Valley, East Texas, and in rural jurisdictions.

Everyone seems to agree that there are problems with the map (ahem) which need to be cleared up -- more than 100 years of patchwork legislation (and constitutional amendments) has left some curious results. For example, Kerrville and San Angelo (Kerr and Tom Green counties, respectively) each have two elected district attorneys, each of whom also represents additional, noncoinciding counties. In Tom Green Co., the two prosecutors alternate taking indictments. Some counties have only one prosecutor for both felony and lesser charges, others (like Travis) have two, and others have three -- district attorneys, criminal district attorneys, and county attorneys, all ready to send your ass to jail. And there are other kinds of elected prosecutors as well in the Texas crazy quilt.

But there's resistance to the Legislature getting involved in a wholesale redrawing of the district map. (The most recent experience did not leave a pleasant taste in the public's mouth.) In addition, many prosecutors view their work -- not tax collecting, or building schools -- as the ultimate government function, and they jealously guard local control. "I don't see the need for redistricting," says Jaime Esparza, longtime DA of El Paso Co. Esparza, a Democrat and the current president of the TDCAA, said he was unaware of any plans by the speaker, but he uses his own district as an example of what's not needed. His authority covers El Paso Co., where he estimates "99%" of his caseload originates. But his judicial district also includes Hudspeth and Culberson counties (Sierra Blanca and Van Horn), a geographically large but sparsely populated slice of the Trans-Pecos. Esparza says there has been talk through the years of splitting off Hudspeth and Culberson from his district, and he has no problem with that, but he wonders if rural counties have the money, in the present economic climate, to fund full-time prosecutors. In addition, Esparza notes, a DA's work isn't -- or shouldn't be -- as clearly partisan as a congressional race, using the example of reliably Republican Brazos Co. (Bryan), which has had a Democratic DA for years.

Speaker Craddick is currently in Europe, searching for his Irish roots and attending a NATO conference (don't ask why). But he left behind interim charges to the House to guide committee work between legislative sessions. Included among them are directives for redistricting both the state's judicial courts and its prosecutors. Craddick's spokesman, Bob Richter, says that judicial redistricting -- redrawing the equally arcane lines that divide up the state's district courts and courts of appeals -- is driving the prosecutor effort and not vice versa. He denies the existence of any Republican plot-in-the-making.

The speaker's office says that the idea for judicial redistricting originated with Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips. A plan to do that was created 10 years ago but failed to be enacted. While redrawing the judicial lines might require changes to the territorial boundaries of the prosecutors who practice in those courts, the TDCAA proposed a system in 1993 that allowed the judicial districts to be redrawn without affecting DAs and county attorneys, so the two don't necessarily go hand in hand.

Which brings us to the suspected real reason for this effort; redistricting might put a few more Republicans into courthouses around the state, while taking out a few unbeloved Democrats. Like, say, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who oversees the state Public Integrity Unit and thus has the authority to prosecute state leaders for any official misconduct. This makes Earle pretty much the last Democrat in Texas with statewide power, and some Republicans -- including those in Travis Co.'s House delegation -- don't hide their desire to get him out. Past efforts to strip the Public Integrity Unit from Earle's office have been unsuccessful, if only because the efforts have been seen as retaliation for Earle's specific prosecutions of such state officials as U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Under cover of a wholesale redistricting effort, this time may be different.

Earle's office refuses comment on the possibility. Few expect Craddick's plan to include a gross attempt to drive Earle from office -- like pairing Travis and Williamson counties under one DA. Far more likely is that a bill that remaps judicial and prosecutor districts across the state will include a provision placing the Public Integrity Unit under the control of the Texas attorney general.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

district attorneys, criminal district attorneys, county attorneys, Texas District and County Attorneys Association, TDCAA, Rob Kepple, Jaime Esparza, DAs, Tom Craddick, Tom Phillips, Ronnie Earle, Travis County District Attorney, redistricting, judicial districts

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