We always approach the convening of the biennial state legislature with a mix of abject terror and giddy anticipation, and the 84th Texas Legislature was no exception. But now that the dust has settled, we've had the leisure to examine what the Lege actually did while knocking around the Capitol Building this year.
Surprisingly, because we've all grown accustomed to governmental bodies that get next to nothing done, the Lege actually accomplished some things, some good and some not so good, during the session. In fact, it passed about 1,200 bills, which Gov. Greg Abbott has been busily signing into law over the past few months. Many of these new laws go into effect on September 1. Here are five new laws we thought were worth noting:
5. The one that makes it easier for salaried working moms to pump breast milk. Right now, federal law only requires that employers make sure that hourly workers have the time and a place to go to pump breast milk, but there aren't any requirements to make sure that salaried public employees also have the time and space — like a bathroom with a door on it — to deal with their breast milk. Until September 1, that is. On that day a new law goes into effect requiring public employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for all public employees who need to do some milking. It's a nice thing to do and at least if you have to deal with breast milk while also, let's say, teaching in a public school, nobody will be able to give you any lip about taking the time to do so and holing up in the teachers' toilet that has a door and provides actual privacy. You'll get to pump out that breast milk in peace by law.
4. The one that makes it easier to get DNA evidence tested in criminal cases. Abbott signed Senate Bill 487, filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, into law shortly after the end of the legislative session. The law makes it easier to get access to DNA evidence that could end up exonerating someone like Michael Morton, the man who was wrongfully convicted for his wife's murder. Morton served 25 years in prison before he convinced a court of appeals to test DNA evidence on a bandanna found near his house. It turned out the bandanna had DNA on it that wasn't visible to the naked eye, and Morton was exonerated and released.
However, Ellis thought the state's DNA-testing law remained ambiguous. Ambiguous enough for the Court of Criminal Appeals to rule last year that testing could be granted only when biological material had already been identified; the ruling did not consider sweat, saliva or skin cells, which contain DNA but aren't exactly easy to spot with the naked eye when present on crime-scene evidence. In fact, had the Court of Criminal Appeals stuck with that interpretation of the law back in 2011, Morton might have never been granted the DNA testing that ultimately freed him. The law has now been clarified, thanks to the bill, to make sure courts allow the testing of any evidence that has a "reasonable likelihood" of containing DNA.
3. The one that requires law enforcement to get trained to deal with your dog. This law came into being because of a terrible story. In 2012, a Fort Worth police officer responded to a call but he ended up at the wrong address. A six-year-old border collie approached the officer — the owners say she was just being friendly, while the officer says he thought she was attacking him — and the officer shot the dog. What makes this whole thing worse is that the owners found out that this isn't an unusual occurrence. In fact, in the past five years, more than 1,000 dogs have been shot by Texas law enforcement, according to the Texas Humane Legislation Network.
After some lobbying, state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat, authored House Bill 593 during the legislative session. The bill, requiring all Texas law enforcement officers to undergo at least four hours of training to learn how to peacefully handle dogs, easily passed through the legislative works and Abbott signed it in May.
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2. The one that revamps our grand jury system. For years, this is how things were done in Texas: A judge appoints commissioners to a grand jury and he just so happens to appoint his friends, who then turn around and select the people who will make up the grand jury. It probably comes as no surprise that people have been lobbing criticism at this system for years and other states have outlawed it entirely since it tends to breed conflicts of interest and a rather narrow grand jury pool.
Now, thanks to House Bill 2150, the Texas grand jury system is finally getting away from the pick-a-pal approach. On September 1, the Texas grand jury system will finally become as random as the regular jury system. Instead of being allowed to handpick three to five jury commissioners who would then be charged with putting together a grand jury, judges will have to seat grand juries entirely through random selection. Yep, that means grand juries could actually be composed of people who don't all know each other and the grand jury convened could even just possibly somewhat reflect the diverse makeup of the community that it is pulled from.
1. The one that makes revenge porn illegal. A bipartisan group of women in the Texas House and Senate filed legislation to take down revenge porn, the act of posting naked photos of women for fun or profit, during the session, and they got their legislation through. Thus, we're finally living in a world where it's a class A misdemeanor to sell explicit photos of a partner without that person's consent.
The Texas movement against revenge porn started when Holly Toups found her ten-year-old photographs on the website Texxxans.com. After the website operator told her that her own photos could be removed for a fee of $500, Toups told him he wasn't getting a dime from her. But she found out that posting photos of someone without consent wasn't technically illegal. She decided to change that. Now, as of September 1, it will be. Senate Bill 1135, authored by state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, got through the Lege and was signed by Abbott in June. Under the new law, anyone convicted for revenge porn faces a $4,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Not too shabby, right?