Today I begin focusing on some of the important positions that will be up for grabs in the next primary election cycle.
As is our custom, the TCDP does not endorse candidates in the primary, but we think it is definitely important to remind voters of what is at stake. So rather than highlight individual candidates, we will take a look in the coming weeks at some of the offices on the ballot themselves.
First up is a look at the 353rd District Civil Court, which is a seat previously held by the much-loved Democrat Scott Ozmun, who passed away in May.
To help us assess this position, we turned to Judge John Dietz, a legendary courthouse figure who currently sits on the 250th District Civil Court. (The 250th and the 353rd share a central docket, so he’s particularly informed on this topic.) Dietz’s knowledge of court history in Travis County runs deep, and so does his commitment to the Democratic Party.
QUESTION: Tell us why the 353rd is an important seat, and why it is important for Democrats to hold onto?
DIETZ: The 353rd has had a history of having really fine judges, including Scott McCown before Scott Ozmun. And there have been four gigantic school finance cases before that court that have really defined the problem with how Texas finances its schools. My court had two of them, and McCown had two.
I don’t know that I can emphasize enough how important those cases were for changing the landscape of how Texas finances schools. Maybe a little history will help.
Texas got serious about upgrading schools in the early 1950s. When we did that, the state provided about 60 percent of the money for education, and the local districts provided 40 percent. It stayed that way until the state started dropping the ball in providing funding. By the time I heard the last case in 2004, the state was providing 40 percent and the locals 60 percent.
I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it again. The dirt in Alice, Texas, is not worth the same as dirt in Dallas, Texas. So when 60 percent of your school finance has to come from whatever your local dirt is worth, you can tax the hell out of that dirt, but they can’t raise the same amount of money that people in Dallas can.
That doesn’t fit our notion of what our government is about. How can the quality of your education depend on where you live? If you go to school in an impoverished area, you’re not going to get the same resources as if you lived in a nice area. I know of no other case that is as significant as how we fund and how we deal with school finance. It’s not so much the present as how it affects things 20 to 30 years out. How we’re treating this generation is how we’ll be treated in the future.
QUESTION: Why is it important to elect Democratic judges?
DIETZ:At one point this county was huddled up in a sea of Republicanism, but it’s a little bit different these days. We’ve had a very long, almost unbroken tradition of electing Democratic judges. And yes, that’s a good thing. Travis County courts are uniquely situated, because we’re in the Capital, that we get cases that are panoramic in scope. On the Travis County bench, you have the opportunity to get things that are weighty and panoramic.
QUESTION: Are there any big cases heading for that court that we know of now?
DIETZ: School finance, workman’s compensation, large environmental quality cases regarding development of the aquifer. Our day-to-day work is really important in terms of families, children and safety; and we have that additional layer that other counties don’t have, with important work presented to us in the state capital. There are a lot of decisions to be made, and most of them are not easy.
QUESTION: Heading into the March primary, how do you feel about Democrats’ chances in the 353rd?
DIETZ: It’s an article of faith that Republicans have more money, but Democrats here have more people. Travis County does have a long tradition of Democrats taking care and paying attention to the judiciary. They are down-ballot races, and people in most places don’t know who the candidates are. But that’s not true in Travis County, and I would hate to see that tradition end.