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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Texas voters approve bevy of constitutional changes while Austinites shoot down measure to swell police force

Voters approved measures that make sweeping changes to the state judiciary and the ability to regulate religious services.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texans approved eight state constitutional amendments on Tuesday, including one that changes the state judiciary and another that insulates churches and religious groups from complying with government orders restricting gatherings.

Meanwhile, in Austin, voters shot down a proposition that would have put more police on the streets of the capital city.

Upset by restrictions limiting public gatherings last year during the pandemic, conservatives in the state pushed for Proposition 3, which adds language to the state Constitution to prohibit the state or a county, city, or other local government entity from enacting orders that limit religious services and organizations. 

As of 11:45 p.m. Central time, an overwhelming 62% percent of Texans voted in favor of Prop. 3, with 37% voting against the measure.

Governor Abbott initally restricted public gatherings at the onset of the pandemic, but he reversed course when he made churches essential service providers. However, many religious freedom advocates raised concerns over future actions officials in the state may take to limit religious services.

Proponents argued the measure will further protect religious organizations from future orders that limit public gatherings.

Opponents to Prop. 3 saw the added protections as overly broad and unnecessary. They argued it allows churches to flout health mesureas that save lives and opens the door to places of worship being able to assert that any restriction, including a building code restriction, is an unwarranted limitation.

During the regular legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 1239, which restricted public officials from restricting religious services. With the passage of Prop. 3, this prohibition is expanded to all forms of political subdivisions in the state and codified in the state Constitution.

Voters in Texas also approved two propositions that will reshape judicial elections in the state.

Proposition 4 changes the eligibility requirements of candidates running for a judgeship. All candidates will be required to be a resident of the state, and the measure also mandates a minimum number of years required for individuals to run for specific positions on the bench. Candidates must have either practiced law or served as a judge for at least eight years to run for a district court position. An additional two years is required of candidates seeking a position on a court of appeal, the court of criminal appeals, or the Texas Supreme Court. Candidates who have had their license to practice law in the state suspended or revoked during their experience period are disqualified from running. 

Opposition to Prop. 4 was largely from progressive groups who argued that it would make Texas’ judicial races less diverse because it would mean many of those eligible to run would be older. 

At a polling location on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Eleanor Walter, president of the University Democrats, said that if Prop. 4 was passed a decade ago, the judges that are currently looking out for the interests of younger voters would not have been elected. 

“Younger judges, minority judges, judges who have student interests at heart, those are the judges who will not get a seat under Prop. 4,” said Walter.

Supporters of Prop. 4 believe that judicial races will become less partisan and more based on the merit of judges’ legal careers and conduct.

Fifty-eight percent of voters approved of the changes to eligibility requirements, while 41% voted against them.

The requirements will apply to candidates who are being sworn in or appointed after Jan. 1, 2025.

Voters also approved Proposition 5, which amends the state Constitution to allow the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate candidates running for judgeships. Fifty-nine percent of voters agreed to expanding the commission’s scope, while 40% were against the proposition.

The commission was established in 1965 when voters approved a constitutional amendment to create a commission charged with investigating complaints of judicial misconduct and disciplining judges accordingly. With voters approving Prop. 5, the commission’s authority is expanded to permit investigations of candidates. 

Both Prop. 4 and 5 had bipartisan support from lawmakers in the Texas legislature as they voted to place these amendments on the November ballot.

In the state’s capital city of Austin, voters were tasked with deciding on whether to require the city to hire more police officers.

Proposition A was placed on the ballot through a petition campaign from the political action committee, Save Austin Now. It would have required the city to have a minimum of two sworn officers for every 1,000 Austin residents, added 40 additional hours of annual training for police, and raised compensation for officers that speak more than one language or are recognized for good conduct.

Proposition A failed to pass with a sizeable majority of Austinites voting no. 

The dispute over policing in Austin began in the summer of 2020 when the city council voted to reallocate $150 million from the Austin Police Department to Austin Public Health and policing alternatives. As a rebuke to the council’s decisions, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature passed House Bill 1900, which financially penalized cities for cutting police funding and required the city to restore the funds that were cut. 

Save Austin Now argued that while the funding had been restored, the positions lost were leading to a rise in violent crime across the city.

Chas Moore, executive director and founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said in an interview that voters saw through the group’s message that more policing was needed to make Austin a safer city. 

“I don’t think the city is saying they hate the police, I believe people came out today and said we deserve something better and Prop. A wasn’t it,” said Moore.

Cleo Petricek, the co-founder of Save Austin Now, said that while the results were disappointing, the measure brought attention to a staffing crisis at the Austin Police Department.

“Save Austin Now will continue the fight to see all Austin residents have safe neighborhoods,” Petricek said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler voiced his support for the outcome of Prop. A on Twitter, writing that it would have led to the city having to “adopt an antiquated staffing model.”

“This election reaffirms our community’s belief that public safety for all requires a comprehensive system that includes properly staffing our police, but also our fire, EMS, and mental health responses as well,” wrote Adler.

The Austin Police Association, which supported Prop. A, thanked those who voted in its favor. They placed the responsibility of moving forward and “rebuilding the future of the Austin Police Department” on Mayor Adler and the city council in a post made to Twitter.

"We kepy hearing Mayor Adler & council members say the budget already exists to hire 300 more officers, so let's get to work and get the process moving forward."

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Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

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