Backstory: The Fifth Circuit Wasn't Always the Most Conservative Court Around

Categories: Courts

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These days the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals can generally be counted on for issuing decisions that are so far right they're practically left. They've made headlines numerous times in the last three months for their decisions on abortion law alone. There are conservative courts in the United States, but the calling the Fifth Circuit conservative is like calling a unicorn a pony: it's kind of accurate but it couldn't possibly cover the horned grandeur that is the Fifth. It wasn't always thus.

So what is the Fifth Circuit anyway? The Fifth Circuit is a court comprised of 15 active judges based in New Orleans with a jurisdiction covering Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Most of the judges are Southern Republicans, which is a key point here.

Come January, the Fifth Circuit is slated to ramp it up and finally hear cases on Texas court decisions regarding gay marriage and House Bill 2, the law that has forced most of the abortion clinics in the state to close, and with the current court makeup, only the most quixotic of gamblers would try and bet on the Fifth ruling against either. The court has been dragging its feet on actually hearing both of these cases, despite the fact that the odds are good that the Southern Republican block will come down against both issues with the force of the hand of God.

This isn't the first time that a bunch of Southern Republicans made sweeping decisions on this circuit court. The court has been around for a while. It was created by the Evarts Act in 1891 (the act both created the appeals courts and allowed Supreme Court judges to stop actually riding the circuit to hear cases across the country.) The appeals court deals with the appealed cases that have bounced up through the court system. But things didn't really get interesting until a crew of Southern (mostly) Republicans landed on the court.


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UPDATED Constable Victor Trevino Rejects Sweetheart Deal, Then Pleads Guilty to Felony After One Day of Trial

Categories: Courts, Crime

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Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino could've skated by four felony indictments by simply resigning, accepting a slap on the wrist, and copping to the equivalent of a traffic violation. But Trevino rejected the deal offered by the Harris County District Attorney's Office early this year, opting instead to go to trial late last week on corruption charges.

Well, that gamble backfired. Following opening arguments in his trial Friday, Trevino on Monday pleaded guilty to misapplication of fiduciary duty, a felony that could put him in prison for up to 10 years. Prosecutors alleged Trevino siphoned cash from his charity, the Constable's Athletic Recreational and Education Events Inc., to buy Lotto tickets and fund gambling trips to Louisiana. Prosecutors also accused Trevino of failing to report campaign cash contributions and for letting his on-the-clock deputies serve eviction notices for landlords.

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Mom Sentenced for Stowing Gun in Boy's Backpack Because He Was Mean To Her Kids

Categories: Courts, Crime

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Heather Hodges
A Conroe mom who attempted to get her boyfriend's middle school son in trouble at school by stowing a gun in his backpack has been sentenced to prison for the crime.

A judge sentenced 28-year-old Heather Hodges Thursday to three years in prison following her guilty plea on charges of unlawful carrying of a weapon on restricted premises. Hodges was arrested and charged in 2012 after planting a gun in the 13-year-old boy's backpack and then calling the school to get him caught.

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Attorney Says Judge Denise Collins Unlawfully Detained Her

Categories: Courts

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Courtesy Cheryl Irvin
"OK everyone, say 'unlawful imprisonment'!" A gaggle of attorneys conferred with the detained Irvin (seated) in September.
A Houston criminal defense lawyer says she's filed a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct alleging that Judge Denise Collins unlawfully detained her as she tried to speak with her client.

Cheryl Irvin says Collins shouted at her after she walked into the 208th District Court to speak with a client who was in the inmate holding area that's accessible from the courtroom. In a statement, Irvin alleges that Collins ordered her "in a [condescending] tone and loud voice" to speak with lawyers representing Irvin's client's co-defendants before speaking with her client.

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Lab Reports Show Hundreds "Convicted in Error" for Drug Offenses

Categories: Courts, Crime

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In recent months the Harris County District Attorney's Office has sent out hundreds of notices to defendants convicted of drug offenses, telling them that forensic lab reports show they were "convicted in error."

The Houston Press has obtained copies of those letters from Wayne Dolcefino, a former investigative reporter and consultant working with the Democratic DA candidate Kim Ogg, who's hoping to unseat incumbent Devon Anderson in next week's election.

The letters, which were sent between July and September 2014, show hundreds of defendants who took plea deals for misdemeanor and felony drug possession charges were later cleared when evidence tested by an HPD crime lab analyst came up negative for a controlled substance. Court records show that while prosecutors were notified several years ago that those tests came back negative, defendants weren't told until months ago.


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Former HCC Lawyer: Trustees Wanted to Make Multimillion-Dollar Bond a "Private Slush Fund"

Categories: Courts, Education

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Photo by WhisperToMe

If you believe Renee Byas, her tenure at Houston Community College was an incredibly rocky one. Shortly after joining HCC as general counsel in 2008, the college, one of the country's largest community college systems, was rocked by allegations that board members shuffled contracts to family members and demanded kickbacks from vendors. She hired an outside firm to launch an internal investigation, which found that several trustees abused their office.

By 2012, as HCC prepared a record $425 million bond package that voters would ultimately approve, the board of trustees promised change. Byas helped draft new rules meant to quash any hint of favoritism in handing out contracts - the new rules banned vendors from giving gifts to trustees, limited financial contributions from vendors to trustees' political campaigns, and expanded conflict-of-interest questionnaires, among other things.

But the trustees bristled at one new rule in particular, according to a counter-suit Byas filed in court this week: instead of handpicking the numerous contractors for each of the bond's 14 major construction projects, the new rules required that the board tap 14 "construction managers at risk," general contractors large enough to put up a $2 million bid bond. Those firms would then tap the numerous local subcontractors to finish the job.

Meaning the trustees - if they wanted to - would have a tough time micromanaging the bond and shuffling contracts to friends and family, as they've done in the past. But Byas claims that's exactly what HCC trustees wanted to do this time around. In a counter-suit filed this week, Byas claims HCC terminated her because she wouldn't play ball - and because she talked to the FBI when federal investigators came sniffing around HCC last year.

Byas alleges her firing "is HCC's attempt to silence a public servant who refused to let HCC's Board of Trustees use a $425 million public bond project as a private slush fund."


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Don't Call Al Hoang a Communist or He'll Sue

Categories: Courts

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Photo courtesy of Al Hoang
Al Hoang, himself.

Politics is an ugly business, but things went from ugly to violent this week when supporters of state Rep. Hubert Vo, Democrat, and those backing Republican opponent Al Hoang showed up at an early voting center in District 149 on Monday afternoon.

Hoang's party took offense to a banner that Vo's supporters had allegedly hung proclaiming that Hoang was a communist spy for the Vietnamese government. Things devolved from there with fighting and at least one box cutter, according to KPRC.

The crazy thing is this isn't even the first time someone has accused Hoang of being a communist.

It sounds like something from the bad old days of the McCarthy hearings, a time when just being accused of communist leanings or communist sympathies was enough to destroy your reputation, your livelihood and your life. We've (hopefully) moved on from that in the United States, but the threat of communism, and the smear that comes with being associated with it, is still alive in Vietnamese American communities.


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Expelled Students Sue University of Houston Over Sexual Assault Investigation

Categories: Courts, Education

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The Den, where Ryan McConnell met the woman he was later accused of sexually assaulting.
The night of November 19, 2011, Ryan McConnell went to the Den, a pub near the University of Houston campus, for some drinks with friends. There McConnell met a fellow UH student, and, after several drinks, talking led to kissing. The two eventually got so drunk a bartender told them to leave.

McConnell and the woman stumbled back to his place at the Calhoun Lofts, where McConnell insists they had consensual, albeit very drunk, sex and fell asleep naked on the floor.

The woman, however, filed police reports after she woke up the next day at Ben Taub Hospital. The night before, fellow students had discovered her dazed and completely nude in the Calhoun Lofts elevator. There were scratches and bruises on her arms and neck. A university police officer took the woman to Ben Taub, and she was later transported to College Station Medical Center, where a nurse informed her that, based on her injuries and the results of a rape kit, she'd likely been assaulted. She couldn't recall being in McConnell's room; the last thing she remembered was drinking at the Den.


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Riverside Hospital CEO Convicted of Fraud

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Image from Google Street View

Earnest Gibson III, Riverside's General Hospital's CEO of more than 30 years, was convicted Monday of conspiring to buy and sell patients in a Medicare and Medicaid scam that siphoned $158 million from government coffers.

Also convicted and awaiting sentencing are his son Earnest Gibson IV, Riverside auditor Regina Askew and Robert Crane, a shuttle driver. Federal prosecutors stated in trial that Crane admitted to an investigating officer he was in the business of referring clients to Riverside's drug and mental health treatment program in return for cash, and then Askew would furnish the paperwork to cover up any wrongdoing. Investigators said inconsistencies in the hospital's books proved that so-called hourly marketers were really headhunters paid a flat rate for every patient they enrolled at Riverside.

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AG Goes After "Celebrity Nutritionist" Lindsey Duncan

Categories: Courts

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This man has traveled the world "in search of superfruits." (Hey, his website says it, not us.)
The Texas Attorney General's Office is suing a dude it says isn't a doctor, but who plays one on TV -- and makes a bundle doing so.

Filed last week, the suit accuses Austin-based Robert Lindsey Duncan, a.k.a. Dr. Lindsey Duncan, of inflating his credentials in order to hawk nutritional supplements on shows like The View and Dr. Oz. Duncan calls himself a "naturopathic doctor," but the state does not recognize such a degree, according to the suit.

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