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Duke of Earle

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Today is the filing deadline for the March 4 primary races. One thing to keep an eye on: Will Republicans field a candidate for Travis County DA? This is a crucial position, because the DA’s office includes the Public Integrity Unit, which is charged with being the ethics enforcer for state government. For almost thirty years, the job has been held by Ronnie Earle, a former Democratic legislator. In my opinion, Earle he has overseen the Public Integrity Unit with fairness and restraint; indeed, he probably upset more people with his restraint than he did with his prosecutions. He has not tried to build a reputation as a crusading prosecutor. As a former member, he had an understanding of the political process, and the influence of money upon it, that allowed him to overlook little violations and focus on the excesses — Tom DeLay, for one.

Republicans may not share my view of Earle, but his record reflects both restraint and even-handedness. He moved against Gib Lewis, a Democratic speaker, and Jim Mattox, a Democratic attorney general, and against Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican state treasurer, and, of course, DeLay, then the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. I thought that his prosecution of Hutchison was overzealous; he should have treated her ethical breaches as misdemeanors. I originally thought his prosecution of DeLay for conspiracy was questionable, but after listening to the oral arguments in the Court of Appeals and reading the majority and dissenting opinions by the Court of Criminal Appeals, I am persuaded that the indictment for conspiracy should have been upheld. I also think that partisanship played a role in the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision. It was particularly nauseating to read Sharon Keller’s touching concern for defendants’ rights in her opinion in the DeLay case. (Indictments of DeLay for money laundering and conspiracy to launder money are still pending.)

Earle does not have a high batting average in court. He was poured out in his prosecution of Hutchison, lost his case against Mattox, and saw his conspiracy indictment of DeLay tossed out. But trials are not where the battles are won and lost. What matters is whether the prosecutor is viewed as even-handed, and here the record speaks well for Ronnie Earle. You know that Earle had to have been pressured by Democrats to indict Tom Craddick in his investigation of the actions of DeLay’s PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority. An indictment would likely have ended Craddick’s speakership, but Earle plays fair.

So far the announced contenders to succeed Earle have come from his office. But the position is too important for Republicans not to field a candidate. Inevitably, there has been speculation about Terry Keel, parliamentarian to Craddick. I’m going to put forth Terral Smith’s name, not because I have any inside information, but because is the kind of person — an even-handed, respected, former member, and a former chairman of Criminal Jurisprudence — who is suited for the job. It’s hard for a Republican to win a race in the place they call the People’s Republic of Travis, but, unless someone prominent files at the eleventh hour, the Democratic nominee is likely to be somebody with no name ID.

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