Texas seeks school finance case judge’s recusal

WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Attorney General Greg Abbott asked Monday for the district judge overseeing Texas’ sweeping school finance trial to recuse himself because of perceived bias in emails he exchanged with attorneys for school districts suing the state.

In a 21-page motion, Abbott’s office cited more than 30 messages from plaintiff attorneys and Judge John Dietz or his staff between March 19 and May 14. It argued the emails came “while evidence was still open” and “leave little question that the judge must be recused from further hearing or trial of this case because his impartiality might now be reasonably questioned.”

The motion says emails between Dietz and his staff and school district attorneys were exchanged without the state’s knowledge and only divulged May 15. Abbott’s office says they improperly discussed the merits of the case.

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Abbott, a Republican, is running for governor and is not arguing the case personally. But his office’s motion, asks Dietz to recuse himself or refer the matter to a “regional presiding judge for consideration.”

The case stems from more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas public school students that sued in 2011, arguing that the Legislature’s cutting of $5.4 billion in classroom funding violated state constitutional guarantees to an adequate education.

The districts said they no longer had sufficient resources to educate young Texans — especially given public school enrollment growth of nearly 80,000 students per year thanks to the state’s booming population, as well as tough, state-mandated standardized testing and curriculum requirements to graduate high school.

Abbott’s office, arguing on behalf of the state, countered that while the school finance system wasn’t perfect, it was far from a crisis point.

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In February 2013, Dietz ruled public education funding was inadequate and unfairly distributed between school districts in rich and poor areas. That summer, lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in classroom funding while easing standardized testing requirements.

Dietz reopened the case this January to hear evidence on the Legislature’s latest actions. He had planned to issue a final, written ruling this summer, with Abbott’s office then expected to appeal it to the state Supreme Court.

But Monday’s motion could delay the process. Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s office, declined comment beyond what was filed. The next steps in the case — or how long they would take — were unclear.

Dietz’s court was closed late Monday, and no one was available for comment.

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This case is the sixth of its kind in Texas since 1984. Austin-based Dietz presided over a similar trial in 2004, finding then in favor of the school districts.