School finance judge refuses to recuse himself

State District Judge John Dietz, right, listens to plaintiff attorney Leonard Schwartz's, foreground, closing arguments in the second phase of Texas' school finance trial before , Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN (AP) — The judge overseeing Texas’ massive school finance trial has refused to recuse himself despite a motion filed by state attorneys alleging bias, likely further delaying a case that began more than 18 months ago.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has asked Austin-based state District Judge John Dietz to give up the case because of recent emails he and members of his court staff exchanged with attorneys representing the 600-plus school districts that have sued the state.

The motion filed Monday argued that some of the emails were sent without the state’s knowledge and “suggest that the judge is coaching the plaintiffs’ counsel in order to improve their case.”

Later that day, Dietz signed an order refusing to leave the case and referring the matter to Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield in nearby Williamson County, who handles administrative tasks. Stubblefield will either appoint an outside judge to have a hearing on the state’s motion, or convene similar proceedings himself. It’s not clear how long the process will take.

The emails in question haven’t been made public.

The case stems from 2011, when the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion in classroom funding, prompting school districts across Texas to sue, arguing educational guarantees in the state’s Constitution had been violated.

The trial opened in October 2012, with the districts saying they no longer had sufficient resources amid rising enrollment and tough state-mandated standardized testing requirements.

Abbott’s office, arguing on behalf of the state, countered that while the school finance system wasn’t perfect, it was constitutional.

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 testing requirements.

Dietz reopened the case this past January to hear evidence on the Legislature’s latest actions. He had planned to issue a final, written ruling this summer, but will likely have to wait until the issue of his recusal is resolved, said Rick Gray, an attorney who represents more than 400 school districts.

“It’s just creating dead time, so to speak,” Gray said. He added that the emails in question were sent as the judge works to compile his final ruling and “nothing improper was done whatsoever and nothing secret was done whatsoever.”

“Both parties have known about this process for quite some time,” Gray said.

Abbott spokeswoman Lauren Bean has refused to comment beyond what was in Monday’s motion.

Abbott, a Republican who is the front-runner in November governor’s race, isn’t overseeing the case personally. Still, his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, called the motion “a last ditch, desperate effort to delay a decision until after the election.”

“Once again, Abbott is proving he’s more interested in working for his political insider buddies than protecting Texas public schools,” Davis said in a statement Tuesday.

The case is Texas’ sixth of its kind since 1984. Dietz presided over a similar trial in 2004, finding in favor of the school districts.

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