Judge John Dietz can stay on school-finance case, judge rules – Austin American-Statesman

State District Judge John Dietz will continue to preside over the long-running case that is challenging the way Texas finances its public schools, a visiting judge ruled late Monday.

Facing a likely legal defeat, Attorney General Greg Abbott pushed to remove Dietz from the case, arguing that recently revealed emails show the judge was biased in favor of plaintiffs lawyers who are seeking to have the state’s school-finance system declared unconstitutional.

Visiting Judge David Peeples disagreed, avoiding a potentially years-long delay in a case that has already run for 2½ years.

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

The order can be appealed.

A new judge would have had extensive catching up to do on the case. Dietz has overseen 15 weeks of testimony, reviewed thousands of exhibits and was nearing completion of his ruling, which will include about 1,600 separate findings in 350 single-spaced pages, lawyers have said.

During a hearing on the recusal motion Friday, one plaintiffs lawyer indicated that the case would have to start over if Dietz were removed.

“The parties and Judge Dietz have invested 2½ years of time in this case … and a recusal now would effectively require us to start from scratch,” said Mark Trachtenberg, lawyer for property-wealthy school districts, told Peeples.

A judge for almost 24 years, Dietz’s experience also would have been difficult to replace.

Dietz presided over a similar challenge a decade ago, hearing more than two months of testimony before declaring in 2004 that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional — a ruling that was partially upheld and partially overturned by the Texas Supreme Court.

When the latest lawsuits were filed in late 2011, Dietz — the presiding civil court judge in Travis County — assigned the case to himself, saying it was more efficient to put his prior experience to use instead of making another judge learn an exceedingly complicated subject.

Even so, Dietz spent months preparing for trial, learning about testing systems, funding formulas, tax rates, demographics and other arcana of the Texas school finance system.

At the end of a three-month trial in February 2013, Dietz issued a verbal ruling that found the Texas system to be unconstitutional. When the Legislature followed up by increasing school funding and decreasing the number of high-stakes tests, Dietz reopened the case for three more weeks of testimony earlier this year.

The emails referenced in Abbott’s recusal motion, filed June 2, were exchanged in the months after the second trial as Dietz worked with school district lawyers to write the detailed findings that would explain the rationale behind his ruling.

During Friday’s hearing on the recusal motion in Austin, school district lawyers said Dietz is prepared to again find the Texas school-finance system to be unconstitutional, allowing him to work with the prevailing parties to craft his findings — a result he had told all parties to expect, including the attorney general’s office, the lawyers said.

During the hearing, Leonard Schwartz, a lawyer for the charter schools that intervened to join the lawsuit, accused Abbott’s office of filing a last-minute recusal motion in a cynical attempt to avoid an expected loss in the case.

But James “Beau” Eccles, an assistant attorney general, argued that the emails showed Dietz coaching and collaborating with school-district lawyers on the finding — improperly working on substantive legal issues in private and without including the attorney general’s office, which was defending the state’s school finance system.

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

Peeples, however, found that Dietz acted in good faith, holding out-of-court conversations with plaintiffs lawyers because “he believed that all parties had agreed to let such discussions take place.”

The emails have not been made public.

More than 600 school districts — including those in Austin, Pflugerville and Hutto — have sued the state, arguing that the Legislature has failed to live up to its constitutional obligations to provide an “efficient system of free public schools.” Two other groups also sued the state: charter schools and a group, including the Texas Association of Business, arguing that the education code should be scrapped to improve efficiency.

Judge John Dietz can stay on school-finance case, judge rules – Austin American-Statesman}

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