December 18, 2013 by Dave Moore at 9:30:00 am
There certainly was no shortage of angst and drama in the Texas legal scene during 2013. From the state's new restrictive abortion law taking effect to billionaire Mark Cuban escaping insider-trading charges, the Lone Star State once again was home to some of the nation's most intriguing legal news. Following is a list of the year's top Texas legal stories as determined by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing, which specializes in work for law firms and legal clients:
1. Perry signs voter ID law
After a six-year legislative battle, Gov. Rick Perry signed Texas' version of a voter ID law. Effective Oct. 21, voters now must present one of five forms of identification before they can cast a ballot. Supporters argued that the law was needed to curtail voter fraud. Opponents argued that voter fraud is rare, and that the new law's actual intention is to reduce voter turnout, mostly among Democrats.
2. Texas abortion law survives appeals
Texas' new abortion law survived a significant challenge when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in November. Shortly after an earlier injunction that blocked the law was lifted, Planned Parenthood reported 12 of Texas' 36 licensed abortion providers stopped offering abortions. The case now will be heard by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January.
3. New Chief at Supreme Court of Texas
After 25 years on the bench, Wallace Jefferson stepped down as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas in October. Gov. Rick Perry selected Nathan Hecht – who has served for 24 years on the court – as Jefferson’s successor. Hecht's appointment caused many pundits and other observers to speculate that the court won't change its pro-business stance in the near future.
4. Harris County DA Mike Anderson dies; widow appointed successor
In May 2013, after serving just five months in office, Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson announced he had cancer. Four months later, he passed away, leaving his seat vacant. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Anderson's widow, Devon Anderson, to complete her late husband's unexpired term. Anderson spent 12 years as a felony criminal court judge after serving 16 years as a prosecutor. The new DA previously worked as a criminal defense attorney and served as a state district judge.
5. American Airlines merger with US Airways approved, DOJ drops case
Air travelers breathed a collective sigh of relief in November when the Department of Justice dropped its antitrust case against American Airlines and US Airways, effectively approving the two airlines' merger. Key to the DOJ's decision were concessions by both airlines to give up gates at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., LaGuardia Airport in New York, and others. That compromise eased the federal government's fears that the merger will result in a monopoly.
6. First phase of the DeepWater Horizon case concludes, first criminal trial starts
Energy giant BP and its partners, Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton, went to civil trial in February on charges that they were responsible for causing one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in U.S. history. The second phase of the trial began in late September, focusing on the extent of the damage and which party/parties were responsible. The final decision could result in more than $13 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, and possibly tens of billions more in punitive damages. Earlier this month, the first criminal trial started for a former BP engineer, who faces obstruction of justice charges.
7. Jury clears Mark Cuban of insider trading
Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban stood his ground against the Securities Exchange Commission, which claimed he used insider information to avoid a $750,000 stock loss in one of the year's highest profile insider trading cases. Cuban’s victory lap following the October verdict was more somber than his exuberant celebration of the Mavs' World Championship in 2011. "This is a horrific example of how government does work," Cuban told reporters who gathered around him following the verdict. "I won't be bullied. I don't care if it’s the United States government."
8. Houston-area judges under fire
It would be an understatement to say that 2013 was a bad year for Houston-area judges. County Court-at-Law Judge Christopher Dupuy resigned after pleading guilty to abuse of office and perjury. Houston federal Judge Lynn Hughes and Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both came under fire for racially-charged comments. And Harris County Family Law Judge Denise Pratt was accused of falsifying court records.
9. Enron's Jeff Skilling’s sentence reduced, appeals end
The vestiges of the Enron collapse continued to wash ashore in Texas courts in 2013. In June, a federal judge trimmed 10 years from the 24-year sentence for Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, saying trial Judge Sim Lake erred in determining Skilling's sentence. The resentencing will free up about $41 million in assets from Skilling's estate to be distributed to victims of the fraud. This includes about $3 million from the sale of a Dallas condominium and a Houston home Skilling owned, funds from bank accounts, and $5 million he posted as bond when he was first indicted.
10. Lance Armstrong admits drug lies, unleashes torrent of litigation
Embracing the newfound American tradition of "televised confession makes everything OK," Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey on national television that he'd lied for 10 years about being drug free when he racked up seven Tour de France victories. Soon after his January confession, former Armstrong sponsors started lining up to claim that the disgraced athlete committed fraud when he accepted their money while claiming to be clean. Among those is the U.S. Postal Service, which seeks $100 million.
11. Kaufman County district attorneys assassinated
First, Kaufman County assistant district attorney Mark Hasse was gunned down in broad daylight near the county courthouse. That case was still unsolved when Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, fell in a hail of gunfire in their own home two months later. The horrific murders sparked rumors that white supremacists were waging open war against the Texas legal community before authorities arrested former Kaufman County Justice of the Peace Eric Williams and his wife, Kim, on murder charges. Investigators believe the hits were in retaliation for Williams' dismissal from his JP job for allegedly stealing county property.
12. Brownsville courthouse corruption
A multi-year federal investigation into corruption at the Cameron County courthouse led to the December sentencing of Austin attorney Marc Rosenthal to 20 years in prison for racketeering and bribery. Former state district Judge Abel Limas also began serving his six-year prison sentence in December for racketeering. Limas' cooperation with federal authorities led to guilty pleas and convictions of numerous defendants, including former Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos, who was convicted of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, and five counts of extortion.
13. Michael Morton Law to take effect
It was a nightmare scenario worthy of a Hollywood script: After serving 25 years for murdering his wife, Michael Morton was freed from prison after it was revealed that his trial prosecutor had buried evidence of his innocence. In the intervening years, Morton's prosecutor, Ken Anderson, became judge of the 277th District Court in Williamson County. Anderson eventually was charged with contempt of court over his misdeeds, earning him 10 days in jail, a nominal fine, 500 hours of community service and loss of his law license. On Jan. 1, the Michael Morton Act will require prosecutors in criminal cases to disclose all evidence in their files to defense lawyers.
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