Judge: Dietz can stay on school finance case

By Marilyn Tennissen | Jun 24, 2014

The judge presiding over the Texas school finance case will be allowed to continue in that role despite some questionable emails he exchanged with plaintiffs’ attorneys, ruled a visiting judge on June 20.

There has been recent pressure on State District Judge John Dietz to recuse himself from the case filed by hundreds of Texas school districts over the constitutionality of the state’s public education funding system. Dietz heard closing arguments in February, but had not made a final ruling.

A few weeks ago, it was discovered that Dietz has been exchanging emails with some of the attorneys representing the school districts. The lawyers say they were only asking the judge questions on matters of law, but the state called foul and Attorney General Greg Abbott said that Dietz was showing bias and asked for his recusal.

State District Judge David Peeples, the presiding regional judge, came to Austin on June 20 for the recusal hearing, and on June 24 released his decision to keep Dietz on the case.

“The circumstances shown by the evidence do not justify recusal,” wrote Peeples in a nine-page ruling.

At the recusal hearing, several attorneys expressed concerns that if Dietz were recused, the case that’s already been going on for more than two years would have to start over.

“The parties and Judge Dietz have invested two-and-a-half years of time in this case … and a recusal now would effectively require us to start from scratch,” said Mark Trachtenberg, a lawyer representing some of the school districts, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The litigation began in 2012 when about 600 school districts sued the state. Dietz has already ruled that the $5.4 billion in cuts from the state’s public school funding made the finance system unconstitutional. But some of that funding has been restored and the recent legislature approved new testing standards, so Dietz reopened the case earlier this year and was expected to make a decision this summer.

During the hearing, Leonard Schwartz, a lawyer for the charter schools, accused Abbott’s office of filing a last-minute recusal motion in an attempt to avoid losing the case, the American Statesman said.

But the state argued that the emails showed Dietz coaching and collaborating with school-district lawyers on the findings.

“That these conversations took place at all … cuts at the very fabric of our system of jurisprudence,” said James “Beau” Eccles, an assistant attorney general. “The judge’s impartiality is reasonably in question.”

But Peeples said that Dietz was acting in good faith and that it was okay that Dietz was having “out-of-court” conversations with plaintiffs’ lawyers because both sides had already agreed those kinds of discussions were allowed.

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