Texas was once again at the forefront of some of the biggest legal stories of the year. The following are the state’s top stories of 2023 as determined by the staff of Androvett Legal Media & Marketing. We start here with No. 10 thru 6.
10. Missing Zoo Animals Go From Joke to Crime
When Nova, one of the Dallas Zoo’s two clouded leopards, turned up missing one morning in mid-January, the jokes practically wrote themselves. Had the search team tried calling “Here, kitty, kitty” or “Pspspsps” or maybe just jiggled the can opener?
Thankfully, Nova was found on the zoo grounds and returned to her enclosure before sundown. Although zoo officials said the mesh enclosure was found to have been “intentionally” cut, it seemed like an isolated incident.
That is, until the following day when a nearby monkey habitat was also found cut open. A week later, an endangered vulture, one of only 27 in U.S. zoos, was found dead in his enclosure having suffering what was described as an “intentional and suspicious” wound.
Enhanced security measures, including doubling the number of security patrols and adding more cameras and fixed fencing, were implemented and a $10,000 reward offered. But on Jan. 30 came news that two emperor tamarin monkeys were missing and were believed to have been taken from the zoo. Luckily, the next day a tip pointed officials to an abandoned house in Lancaster, where the monkeys were found, only slightly worse for the adventure, and returned safely to the zoo.
Images of a person of interest were released and the reward for information was increased to $25,000. Two days later, a suspect was arrested after employees of the Dallas Aquarium alerted officials to a visitor matching the suspect’s description who was asking “unusual” questions about the care of the animals. His arrest seemingly ended a bizarre three-week chapter in the zoo’s history.
During police interrogations, the 24-year-old suspect detailed how he was able to access the zoo grounds and use the city’s light rail system to make his getaway. Indicted in March on charges related to the theft of the monkeys and the escape of the clouded leopard, the motivation behind his actions were said to be personal, not an attempt to make any type of larger statement. Indeed, he continued to profess his love of animals, vowing to take more if released.
In August, he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and sentenced to an inpatient treatment facility.
The vulture attack was never linked to the other crimes, and his death remains unsolved.
9. Houston Man Indicted for Murder in Death of Migos Rapper Takeoff
In a case that made national headlines, a Harris County grand jury in May indicted a Houston man for murder in the shooting death of Migos rapper Takeoff.
Patrick Xavier Clark, 33, is accused of shooting and killing Takeoff, whose real name was Kirshnik Khari Ball, outside a Houston bowling alley in November 2022. The rapper was a member of the Grammy-nominated group Migos along with his uncle Quavo and friend Offset.
Takeoff was leaving a private party at the bowling alley when he was shot. Investigators say the shots followed an argument over a “lucrative” dice game, but that Takeoff was “an innocent bystander” who was not involved in the disagreement.
Houston police detectives say surveillance video, cell phone video and audio along with ballistic evidence led them to arrest Clark in December 2022.
Clark is currently free on a $1 million bond. Under the conditions of his release, he is under house arrest and only able to leave home confinement between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. He must also wear a GPS tracking device and avoid contact with anyone involved in the shooting investigation.
Clark’s attorney, Letitia Quinones-Hollins, describes the charges as a “rush to judgment.” She points out that Texas is known for its Stand Your Ground law and believes Clark has a “valid and meritorious claim for self-defense.”
Clark is expected to go to trial in 2024.
8. The Double Helix of Jerry Jones Paternity Lawsuit Becomes More Tangled
The past year has seen the birth of multiple dueling lawsuits from a North Texas woman and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones over paternity claims and defamation allegations.
In a March 2022 lawsuit, Alexandra Davis alleged that Jones is her biological father and that she has been forced to remain silent about her paternity under a confidentiality agreement signed by her mother when Davis was an infant. Now an adult, she wants the court to rule that she should no longer be bound by the agreement so that she can publicly acknowledge Jones as her father.
After dropping that lawsuit, Davis filed a new claim last December seeking to compel Jones to submit to DNA testing to settle the question of paternity. A Texas court of appeals suspended further deliberations on that motion due to a scheduling conflict with Jones’s attorney, overturning a previous denial for the delay by a Dallas County district court.
Davis, who works as an aide to U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson of Amarillo, subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit claiming that Jones and others engaged in a “smear campaign” to paint her as an “extortionist” and a “shakedown artist.” Davis argued she has never demanded money from Jones and that several statements were made “with the malicious intent” to discredit her.
The judge dismissed several of those claims, determining that some of the alleged defamatory statements about Davis were either true or “not defamatory.” He also ruled that Davis qualified as a “limited public figure” and as such had failed to make a valid claim of actual malice, a requirement under defamation law. The judge granted Davis until mid-December to file an amended complaint.
Meanwhile, the delayed motion to compel Jones to submit to DNA testing has yet to be rescheduled.
7. Taking Controversial Measures to Address Migrant Crisis
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this summer proclaimed a southern border “invasion,” allowing him to utilize a contested legal concept to claim additional emergency powers.
In response to the termination of Title 42 in May, Abbott introduced the Texas Tactical Border Forces to address the escalating migrant crisis. Various measures were employed, including the deployment of concertina wire, the creation of an improvised wall using shipping containers, and installation of a floating barrier composed of river buoys equipped with serrated blades.
Operation Lone Star, implemented to execute these measures, has faced criticism from environmentalists, advocacy groups and lawmakers, leading to myriad legal challenges questioning its constitutionality. Over the past two years, thousands of Texas National Guard soldiers have been deployed across 58 counties near the Texas-Mexico border, tasked with apprehending and detaining migrants for state trespassing.
The Texas National Guard began laying more than 20 miles of concertina wire along the border near El Paso in the spring, reinforcing it in August with two and, in some places, three lines of fencing.
On Sept. 6, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the state in response to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department, mandating removal of the buoys by Sept. 5. Abbott appealed the decision, and the next day, a federal appeals court granted permission to keep the floating barrier in place until the Fifth Circuit ruled against the buoys and ordered their removal on Dec. 1.
Texas National Guard members and state troopers patrol between lines of concertina wire, engaging in cat-and-mouse pursuits with migrants and, in some cases, arresting them for trespassing.
In October, the state initiated a lawsuit against the Biden administration, seeking to prevent federal agents from removing the razor wire. Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the Biden administration of “undermining” the state’s efforts in border security.
6. City of Dallas Departments Crippled by Ransomware Attack
On May 3, Dallas fell victim to a ransomware attack, said to be orchestrated by a sophisticated cybercriminal network, targeting crucial systems that contained benefits-related information within the city’s human resources department.
The attack’s aftermath paralyzed essential operations for the city’s police, firefighters, hospitals and government officials. These critical systems remained inoperable for days, causing widespread chaos. The city’s courts were also incapacitated for weeks, exacerbating the impact on public services.
Dallas officials said the cause was ransomware – a form of malicious software that hackers use to scramble data and immobilize networks until an extortion payment is made, typically in digital currency. U.S. officials have linked Royal, the group responsible for the hackings, to the Conti gang of cybercriminals, which in turn, is alleged to operate from Russia and maintain connections to Russian intelligence.
Initially Dallas officials claimed sensitive information was not affected. However, three months later, on June 14, it was disclosed that personnel data had likely been compromised. More than 26,000 Dallas city personnel had their personal information exposed, including names, addresses, Social Security numbers, medical details and health insurance information. The attackers had pilfered nearly 1.17 terabytes of data from April 7 to May 2, gearing up for the deployment of ransomware.
The extensive recovery process cost more than $8.5 million, necessitating federal assistance from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
In response, the city of Dallas invested $4 million in a dedicated system designed to prevent future cyberattacks. However, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins revealed to the public in October that city officials had been notified of yet another breach. In response, the county engaged an external cybersecurity firm to conduct a comprehensive forensic investigation into the incident.
5. Bans. So Very Many Bans
If there were such a designation, “bans” may well have topped the list of Top Texas Words of 2023 with the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature passing several measures designed to centralize state authority at the expense of the state’s largest, Democrat-leading cities.
House Bill 2127, nicknamed the “Death Star” bill, went into effect Sept. 1, barring city and county governments from passing local regulations more restrictive than those passed on a state level in matters involving labor, agriculture, natural resources and finance. Described by proponents as necessary to combat a “growing patchwork of local regulations,” the law effectively banned local governments from enacting bans.
The timing of HB 2127 raised more than a few eyebrows in a summer marked by record heat as the new law nullified mandates from several local governments, most notably Austin and Dallas, which would have required water breaks for outdoor workers.
Despite the restriction on local bans, Texas school districts were feeling the heat to restrict content available to students. In one district, $90,000 worth of new library books were stored, not shelved, pending internal review. That review resulted in bans on books by Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume. In another district, a substitute teacher was fired for reading students passages from an illustrated adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.
HB 900, which regulates the content of books distributed to public school districts by requiring book vendors to rate materials based on sexual content, is currently blocked, pending the results of a challenge heard by the Fifth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in early December.
Signed in June by Gov. Greg Abbott, SB 12 banned “sexually oriented performances” (although not specifically noted, the law targeted drag performances) on public property and in the presence of minors. The law was later ruled unconstitutional over freedom of speech concerns.
Medical decisions were not immune to the Year of the Bans.
Texas lawmakers passed SB 14, banning transgender youth from accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapy. Despite an emergency hearing request, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the challenge, allowing the law to go into effect on Sept. 1.
Expanding on the restrictive abortion ban enacted in 2022, several West Texas counties have banned travel by Texas women through their jurisdictions while en route to a state where abortion is not regulated.
Also, under SB 7, private employers are prevented from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates upon their workforce.
4. Gov. Abbott Wants School Vouchers – No Matter How Long It Takes
The 88th Texas Legislature session began Jan. 10 with one bill as a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott – House Bill 1, which would have created an education savings account program for Texas families.
If passed in Abbott’s preferred form, HB1 would have allocated $8,000 a year for families to use for private education, roughly 75% of the average amount each school receives in per-student state and local funding.
Voucher opponents say the program will steal public school funds and exacerbate existing funding shortfalls. They also say that rural areas, where funding is particularly strained and there are few private school options, will be unduly impacted.
Overwhelming opposition by the rural Republican representatives and House Democrats to the omnibus school funding bill meant legislators reached no agreement before the state’s regular session ended. Abbott immediately called lawmakers back to Austin for a special session to address HB1. Again, no agreement was reached. Vowing to continue to call special sessions until a bill is passed, Abbott ordered four special sessions convened in 2023.
In the fourth session, the bipartisan coalition stripped HB1 of its school voucher provision, voting 84-63 in favor of the passed amendment, thus handing Abbott his most significant setback yet.
“Expanding government-defined choice programs for a few without accountability … undermines our constitutional and moral duty to educate the children of Texas,” said State Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, who led the amendment nixing Abbott’s education savings accounts.
On Dec. 5 the House adjourned and for the third time in 2023, the Texas House prevented the Legislature from passing the bill. Despite the opposition to his plan, Abbott continues to display his seemingly unwavering resolve on the question of school vouchers. In November, he began endorsing primary challengers of legislators who have so far voted against HB1.
3. The Crow Connection to Supreme Court Controversy
The past year saw an increasing number of revelations regarding extravagant gifts and other undisclosed financial arrangements between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and several wealthy, conservative-leaning benefactors.
Much of the media coverage involved Justice Thomas’s close relationship with Dallas billionaire Harlan Crow, who over the course of two decades reportedly treated Thomas and his wife to multiple luxury trips on his private jet and yacht and paid for accommodations for Thomas at ritzy resorts around the world.
Reports also revealed that the real estate developer bought the home of Thomas’ elderly mother, along with adjacent properties, nearly a decade ago, investing tens of thousands of dollars for improvements to the Savannah, Georgia, home. Crow also paid the $6,000 monthly tuition for Thomas’ teenage grandnephew to attend a private boarding school.
In August, the investigative website ProPublica compiled details regarding what was likely millions of dollars in gifts to Thomas from other billionaire friends, documenting 38 destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, eight helicopter flights and dozens of VIP passes to lavish parties and sporting events that Thomas did not report.
Crow repeatedly claimed that he “never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue.” Thomas subsequently claimed he wasn’t aware that such disclosures were necessary and said they did not pose any conflicts of interest.
In response to the controversy, the Court in November announced its first formal code of conduct, codifying that justices should not let outside relationships influence their official conduct or judgment, spelling out restrictions on participation in fundraising and reiterating limits on gifts. It also states that justices should not “to any substantial degree” use judicial resources or staff for non-official activities.
The new code drew mixed reviews, with some critics noting the apparent absence of any enforcement mechanism.
2. Texas Supreme Court Overturns Judge’s Ruling Allowing Woman’s Abortion
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, setting off a trigger law that bans virtually all abortions in Texas, legal challenges to the restrictive ban have met with no success.
But that changed, however briefly, on Dec. 7 when Travis County Judge Maya Guerra Gamble handed down a temporary restraining order permitting Kate Cox of Dallas to terminate her nonviable pregnancy under a medical exemption.
According to the Texas Tribune, it was the first time in 50 years that a judge had intervened to allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy. However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately petitioned the Texas Supreme Court, seeking to block the decision. A day later, the court issued a stay, preventing the procedure from taking place while it considered its opinion.
Cox had sought to end her pregnancy at 20 months after her doctor found that the baby had full trisomy 18, a chromosomal abnormality that is almost always fatal before birth or soon after. The doctor also advised that continuing the pregnancy posed significant risk to Cox’s health and future fertility.
On Dec. 11, the court issued its opinion blocking the abortion, stating that Cox’s doctor had not proven that she met the conditions for a medical exemption.
“The law leaves to physicians – not judges – both the discretion and the responsibility to exercise their reasonable medical judgment, given the unique facts and circumstances of each patient,” the Texas Supreme Court opinion said.
Cox left the state following the ruling in order to terminate her pregnancy.
1. Ken Paxton Acquitted on All Articles of Impeachment
It was one for the history books.
In May, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton became only the third sitting official in Texas’ nearly 200-year history to be impeached. The Texas House of Representatives voted 121-23 to impeach Paxton on allegations of misconduct that included abuse of office and bribery.
That vote set up a historic trial in the Texas Senate, where senators, acting as jurors, were asked to decide if Paxton should be removed from office.
At issue when the trial began in September were allegations that the attorney general abused his office to help his friend, real estate investor Nate Paul, who was under federal investigation. In return, House impeachment managers said, Paul paid to renovate Paxton’s home and helped him cover up an extramarital affair.
During the dramatic two-week trial, the House impeachment team, led by Texas legal legends Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, presented witness after witness in support of what it believed was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Paxton misused his office and should be removed.
Paxton’s team, which included well-known attorneys Tony Buzbee and Dan Cogdell, hammered home its argument that there was no such evidence.
In the end, the Senate voted to acquit Paxton of all 16 articles of impeachment. The most votes any article received was 14, well short of the 21 needed for conviction. The only one not to vote was his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, who was barred from participating in the proceedings.
“If this were a regular jury trial, Mr. Paxton would have been convicted without hesitation,” said Mr. Hardin. “But this wasn’t a regular jury trial, it was a political trial.”
While Paxton, who was suspended from office after being impeached, has resumed his duties, his legal troubles are not yet over. He still faces trial on separate securities fraud charges. That trial is set for April 15, 2024, in Houston, where it was moved on a change of venue from Collin County.
As for the House managers who went after the attorney general and lost, Paxton has promised retribution.
“Get ready,” he warned impeachment manager Jeff Leach during a radio interview.
Since then, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who led the impeachment, has announced he won’t seek reelection.
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