Friday, January 31, 2014

Proxy war in Harris County?

Four years ago Chris Daniel won the race for Harris County District Clerk over the incumbent Loren Jackson. Under Mr. Jackson's leadership the District Clerk's Office moved out of the Stone Age and into something that resembled our modern times. Alas, Mr. Jackson won election to an unexpired term in 2008 on the coattails of Barack Obama (perhaps you've heard of him) and was swept out in the next election.

Mr. Daniel has moved forward with the changes Mr. Jackson made - but with a bit more of an eye on the publicity side. He cruises around town in his gas guzzling Hummer with campaign signs in the windows. Subtle is one characteristic no one would ever use to describe Mr. Daniel.

In all honesty I haven't been able to tell any difference in the way the office functions under Mr. Daniel than it did under Mr. Jackson - and, as a largely administrative office, that's just the way it should be. There have been some problems here and there but the move to all-electronic filing is getting there. Some changes haven't met with as much enthusiasm as others, but, all in all, he hasn't done a bad job.

In fact, during Mr. Daniel's time in office the number of folks reporting for jury duty has increased. While it's still pathetically low any improvement is a good thing.

But there are some in the Republican community who are upset with Mr. Daniel. Chief among them is the head wing nut in Harris County, State Senator Dan Patrick. Now I wish I could find a clip of Mr. Patrick painting himself blue for an Oilers' playoff game back in the 70's but since YouTube didn't exist back then those clips are rare to find.

The darling in Mr. Patrick's eye is his former employee, Court Koenning. Why exactly he's running for District Clerk isn't quite clear. There isn't exactly what I would call a groundswell of opposition to the way Mr. Daniel is running the office.

Even more curious is Mr. Koenning's website with endorsements from leading wing nuts in Harris County.

Sen. Patrick touts Mr. Koenning as a "conservative leader." State Rep. Patricia Harless says he will be "an outspoken advocate for conservatives at the courthouse." State Rep. Allen Fletcher champions his "conservative vision."

I am still trying to figure out what being a liberal, a conservative, a Marxist or a neo-fascist has to do with running the District Clerk's office. Your job as clerk is to make it as easy as possible for folks to file suits and for the courts to get the filings they need. Your job is to make the process of obtaining certified copies of filings as painless as possible. Your job is to send out jury summonses. That's about it.

One's politics shouldn't matter. Can you get the job done or not? That's the only question that needs to be answered.

Mr. Koenning's biggest issue seems to be the low turnout for jury duty. In 2010 turnout for jury duty was about 30%. Four years later that number is up to 34%. While that number is still pathetic, it is an improvement. And Chris Daniel does have it right when he says the way to improve turnout is to make it a more positive experience rather than trying to sanction those who fail to appear.

Mr. Koenning's idea is to allow potential jurors to check their status on-line. The only problem is that not everyone has internet access. Under such a system we will end up with juries disproportionately made up of higher income, better educated citizens. What now passes as a jury of one's peers will change to a jury of one's suburban peers. By focusing on these folks, Mr. Koenning's plan would increase the number of jurors more sympathetic to the prosecution.

A jury pool works best when it is made up of a broad cross-section of the community and not a bunch of folks with internet access who feel comfortable with technology.

While this is certainly no endorsement of Chris Daniel, it should serve as a warning about the creation of made-for-election issues. I would love to be a fly on the wall so I could figure out what's really going on behind the scenes with this race. My guess is it's being used as a battleground for a fight between the far right wing of the GOP led by Dan Patrick and the more moderate wing led by whoever leads the mythical moderate wing of the Republican Party in Texas.

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