State Rep. Sylvester Turner, a staple of the Democratic caucus in the Texas House for more than a quarter century, is making what could be his final pass through the legislature, having announced his candidacy for Houston mayor.
Over the years Turner developed a reputation for delivering impassioned speeches from the House floor, prompting some to label him “the conscience of the House.” And, over the past several sessions, Turner has championed landmark criminal justice reforms in Texas. Last session, he authored a law making it easier to challenge criminal convictions predicated on junk science. This session – in addition to pushing for an overhaul of the dismal, probably-unconstitutional civil commitment program for sex offenders and asking for mental health treatment for prison inmates subjected to solitary confinement – Turner has thrown his support behind fixing Texas's antiquated, flawed system for empaneling grand juries.
On Friday, Turner's passion for criminal justice reform merged with his penchant for fiery floor speeches.
All other states and the federal government have abandoned using the so-called pick-a-pal system, in which a judge appoints commissioners who then pick whoever they want (presumably friends and other people they know) to serve on grand juries. As the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg pointed out in a series of searing columns last year that won the daily its first ever Pulitzer, the pick-a-pal system is rife with abuse.
Public and political support had aligned this session, it seemed, to finally ditch the current system and move to a truly random process for empaneling grand juries. Then, some Republicans critical of the measure – in particular, Rep. Ed Thompson of Pearland and Rep. Tony Dale of Cedar Park – tried to derail the whole thing.
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Today in the House, Rep. Dale tried to excise language reforming the process from HB 2105 by Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston – the bill has become the latest vehicle for grand jury reforms after previous measures failed.
Then Turner took to the mic, telling House members, “If the Texas House wants to hold onto the past, then we don't do ourselves justice. We don't do Texas justice. We can do better." Turner's four and a half minute speech is a stunning reminder of why many Democrats lament his departure from the Legislature:
Alvarado's bill passed with grand jury reform language in tact and now heads to the Senate for consideration.