Texas school finance judge won’t be removed

AUSTIN (AP) — An outside judge ruled Monday that a colleague can keep presiding over Texas’ long-running school finance trial, blocking state attempts to oust him because of perceived bias.

San Antonio-based David Peeples found that fellow state District Judge John Dietz won’t be removed from a sweeping case that first went to trial in October 2012. It grew out of the Legislature cutting $5.4 billion in public education funding the previous year, prompting lawsuits from more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students.

The office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked Dietz to step aside because of what it said was favoritism the judge expressed in emails he and his staff exchanged with school district attorneys.

Dietz refused and the matter was assigned to Peeples, who held a hearing last week in Dietz’s Austin courtroom. No witnesses were called and Dietz wasn’t present, but Abbott’s office pointed to messages between March and May which it said proved Dietz was coaching school districts’ lawyers on how to make their case stronger.

Attorneys for the school districts countered that Dietz did nothing wrong and that outside communication was common in civil cases, especially complicated ones.

Last year, Dietz found that the cuts violated educational guarantees cemented in the Texas Constitution, ruling that funding was inadequate and unevenly distributed among wealthy and poor parts of the state. But he has yet to issue a final, written ruling that can be appealed.

The Legislature later restored about $3.4 billion to classrooms, and the judge briefly reopened the case in January to hear evidence on what effect the added funding might have.

Dietz had planned to issue a final judgment soon, but that process was delayed after Abbott’s office sought his removal. School district attorneys further argued that since Dietz had already ruled once, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his recent emails reinforced the idea that he would find against the state in his final judgment.

Abbott, a Republican, is running for governor and not arguing the case personally. His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, claims he’s trying to delay a potentially embarrassing final ruling until after the November election. Had Dietz been removed, the case might have had to start over — but Abbott’s office argued that judicial impartiality was more important than finishing the case quickly.

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