Naked City

Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond

 In a pair of split decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled both that this 40-year-old monument of the Ten Commandments displayed on the Texas Capitol lawn does not violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause and, in the second case, that displays in two different county courthouses in Kentucky violated the clause because they lacked a secular purpose or message. In each case, Justice Stephen Breyer cast the deciding vote, thereby describing the court's latest standard when considering cases involving the separation of church and state by siding with the court's more conservative members in the Texas case (brought by homeless lawyer Thomas Van Orden), and then siding with a more liberal contingent of justices in the Kentucky case. In the case of the Capitol Ten, Breyer opined that the question of constitutionality depends on the use of the decalogue; specifically, that the Texas display communicates not simply a religious message, but a secular message as well. <i>– Jordan Smith</i>
In a pair of split decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled both that this 40-year-old monument of the Ten Commandments displayed on the Texas Capitol lawn does not violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause and, in the second case, that displays in two different county courthouses in Kentucky violated the clause because they lacked a secular purpose or message. In each case, Justice Stephen Breyer cast the deciding vote, thereby describing the court's latest standard when considering cases involving the separation of church and state by siding with the court's more conservative members in the Texas case (brought by homeless lawyer Thomas Van Orden), and then siding with a more liberal contingent of justices in the Kentucky case. In the case of the Capitol Ten, Breyer opined that the question of constitutionality depends on the use of the decalogue; specifically, that the Texas display "communicates not simply a religious message, but a secular message as well." – Jordan Smith (Photo By John Anderson)


Quote of the Week

"Oh Moses, you stubborn, splendid adorable fool. You can worship any God you like, as long as I can worship you." -- Queen Nefertiri (Anne Baxter) to Moses (Charlton Heston) in The Ten Commandments (1956)

Producer Cecil B. DeMille promoted his camp epic by donating monumental decalogues to the (then all-white) Fraternal Order of Eagles, which placed them with state governments, including Texas -- hence the Supreme Court decision this week, ruling that the Texas Capitol Ten Commandments can stay where they are. See photo above.


Headlines

• In another Supreme Court ruling, the high court ruled that the government may seize private property through eminent domain law for "economic development" projects, a decision that could have repercussions on some current Austin cases. See "Take That!"

• Gov. Rick Perry went on the radio and the road promoting his school finance plan, which was quickly denounced by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn … and thus the gloves have come off and the 2006 gubernatorial race begins in earnest. See "Lege Notes."

• Meanwhile, the House modified and passed its own school finance plan, House Bill 2, which failed in the regular session. HB 2 was very nearly superseded by a Democrat plan that had the backing of several Republicans, foiled only by Speaker Tom Craddick's tiebreaker vote. See "Lege Notes."

• At press time, UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner announced he will step down next year. Faulkner, 60, has presided over UT since 1998, and by the time he retires – sometime next summer – he will be the university's second-longest-serving prez.

• The Texas Longhorns baseball team won its sixth national championship on Sunday by defeating the Florida Gators 6-2. All is right with the world.


Austin Stories

• City Council took its first stab at trying to shape growth along the SH 130 corridor by considering a study of growth trends in the 300 square miles around the under-construction highway east of Austin. Prevailing sentiment on council is that now-traditional suburban design – cul-de-sacs feeding onto a few major arterials – is an expensive and inefficient use of infrastructure dollars, and that it's possible to design something better in the 175 square miles of the study area that is within Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction. Mayor Will Wynn repeatedly marveled over the fact that 40,000 people have moved into the study area in the last five years, as well as the fact that Austin would have to act darn fast if the city is to get ahead of the development. Brewster McCracken was particularly champing at the bit to annex everything in sight so the city could have a say in where roads go. (Until the city annexes a part of its ETJ, the county has jurisdiction over roads.) City Manager Toby Futrell pointed out, however, that annexation comes with an obligation to provide services, and in some cases, the necessary infrastructure isn't there yet. – Rachel Proctor May

• The Austin Police Department has completed the "initial phase" of its criminal investigation into the officer-involved shooting death of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha on June 9, and has forwarded the contents to Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Earle's office will review the investigation and then present the case to a grand jury. Meanwhile, APD detectives are still trying to find 18-year-old Ricardo "Ricky" Ulfeng, who was also a passenger in the Suburban that Rocha was riding in the night he was killed. Ulfeng jumped out of the car and ran away from the scene shortly before the shooting. Police are asking anyone with information on Ulfeng to call the homicide tip line at 477-3588. – Jordan Smith

• Austin-Travis Co. EMS dispatcher Julie Regier has been awarded Emergency Dispatcher of the Year honors by the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch, the industry's largest professional organization. Regier was nominated by EMS Clinical Communications Commander Beverly Bottorff-Patton, and was chosen to receive the award after judges reviewed tapes of her 911 calls and dispatch records. Judges ranked Regier tops in the field for professionalism, ability to function under stress, and adherence to protocols, "particularly under extraordinary circumstances or in cases involving a difficult caller," according to an NAED press release. "It's a good feeling to be recognized," Regier said. "Even though we may work behind the scenes, as 911 dispatchers, we're the first line of defense in any emergency." – J.S.

• Austin ISD on Friday announced it had placed Reagan High School Principal John Gonzalez on administrative leave with pay. "As a result of information brought to the District's attention, the District commenced an inquiry into allegations about which I am not permitted by law to discuss," Superintendent Pat Forgione wrote in a letter to the Reagan community on June 24. (The district cannot comment on human resources issues because of employee privacy rules.) The letter did, however, assure parents that the allegations didn't involve any students. Gonzalez served only one year at the troubled Northeast Austin school. Marcus Nelson, head of AISD's blueprint secondary schools, will take over Reagan leadership until a permanent replacement is hired. – R.P.M.

• How's Austin ISD spending your bond money? According to Vincent Torres and Annette LoVoi, the co-chairs of the committee overseeing implementation of the $50 million Health and Safety bond passed in 2002, pretty darn well. The first three years of projects, which consisted of drainage, weatherproofing, ventilation, and other improvements to indoor air quality and school safety, is on time and is even $2.9 million under budget. That's a lot of erasers, people. Projects planned for the fourth year are now rolled into the schedule for the $519.5 million bond package voters approved in August, which funds eight new schools and renovations throughout the district. – R.P.M.

• The city of Austin received a national award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Wednesday for its attempts to reduce affordable housing barriers. Austin, which received the 2005 Robert L. Woodson Jr. Award for its SMART Housing Policy, was one of 14 cities, including San Antonio, "recognized for reducing cumbersome, excessive or exclusionary regulatory requirements and/or processes that discourage the construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing," a city press release said. According to the city's Web site, SMART Housing – which stands for Safe, Mixed income, Accessible, Reasonably priced, and Transit-oriented – is an incentive program that encourages developers to create affordable housing by providing fee waivers for projects "in which at least 10 percent of the units meet the 'reasonably priced' standard, by serving families at or below 80 percent of the Austin Area Median Family Income" – that's $56,900 for a family of four, according to the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. – C.S.


Beyond City Limits

• According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, 2004 was a record-breaking year for drug seizures. In just one year, DPS officers seized 1.5 tons of cocaine (the second most in DPS history), 38 tons of marijuana (an all-time record), 191 pounds of methamphetamine (also an all-time record high), and made a total of 2,117 drug arrests (also the second most in the agency's history). The confiscated drugs had a total street value of $189.1 million, DPS reports. DPS director Col. Thomas A. Davis was, predictably, high on his officers' accomplishments: "Thanks to our regular patrol activities targeting drunk drivers, speeders, and seat-belt violators, DPS took 90,000 pounds of drugs out of circulation and put thousands of drug smugglers behind bars," he said. – J.S.

• Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said June 27 that he is disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to consider whether the First Amendment provides so-called "shield" privilege to journalists who want to protect the identity of their confidential sources. Abbott co-authored a friend-of-the-court brief (signed by 33 other state attorneys general) advocating the shield protection filed for consideration in the case of two reporters threatened with jail time for refusing to reveal their sources in connection with the 2003 leak that ended with the public identification of CIA operative Valerie Plame. "The Supreme Court has passed up an important opportunity," Abbott said in a press release. "A democracy cannot function properly without a free and open press." – J.S.

• Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, along with 47 other state attorneys general, is urging the Federal Communications Commission to expand its "truth-in-billing" rules to cover wireless phone companies, a move that would end the carriers' practice of using deceptive language to hide various add-on service plan charges. Wireless carriers are currently exempt from the 1999 FCC rule that requires residential telephone customer bills to be clearly organized and to contain "full and clear descriptions of charges that appear" on the bill. The exemption has allowed wireless companies to mask the true cost of their monthly service plans by hiding variable add-on fees under a list of supposedly government-imposed "fees and taxes." What consumers don't know, Abbott said in a press release, is that the fees, variably listed as "Federal Universal Service Fund" or "State Universal Service Fund" charges, are, in fact, not government-imposed. The attorneys general have also told the FCC that the order should preserve the states' right to enact and enforce their own "truth-in-billing" laws in the event that the commission chooses to continue the wireless carrier exemption to the FCC order. According to Abbott, "telecommunications issues" have ranked in the top three categories of consumer complaints to the AG's office for the last three years, in part because of wireless carriers' deceptive billing practices. – J.S.

• On June 22, Gov. Rick Perry issued sentence commutations for the 28 juvenile offenders on Texas' death row. The commutations – from death to life sentences (now that the state has axed the life with a possibility of parole sentencing option and replaced it with a true life-without-parole option) – were mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year (in a case styled Roper v. Simmons) when the justices ruled that the execution of defendants who were juveniles when they committed a crime is cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional. Predictably, Perry made sure to reiterate the fact that the commutations weren't his idea: "While these individuals were convicted by juries of brutal murders and sentenced to die for their heinous crimes," he said in a press release, "I have no choice but to commute these sentences to life in prison." – J.S.


Happenings

• The Austin Alliance for Social Justice – a new coalition of veterans and gay rights supporters – will hold an equality vigil starting at 5:15pm Friday, July 1 at Wooldridge Square (10th and Guadalupe, next to the Travis Co. Courthouse) to protest Gov. Rick Perry's remarks about gay veterans. Veterans will then lead the group to the state Capitol for a silent vigil. The alliance has joined the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas in protesting Perry's inflammatory statement following a bill-signing ceremony in Fort Worth. Not to beat a dead horse, but Perry said, "Texans made a decision about marriage, and if there's a state that has more lenient views than Texas, then maybe that's a better place for them to live." He was responding to a reporter's question about what he would tell gay and lesbian veterans in Iraq who might want to come home to Texas and marry their sweethearts.

• Dog people! Cat people! The spay/neuter operation Emancipet is holding an open house to show off their groovy new East Austin digs. On July 9, 6-9pm, visit the office at 601 Airport (on the Levander Loop, just north of the merge with East Seventh) and see how hard the good folks are working to solve Austin's pet overpopulation problem. You could make an appointment to neuter your kitty on the cheap, too. See www.emancipet.org or call 587-SPAY.

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