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Eckhardt on Abbott’s cuts: “It’s retribution”

Thursday, February 2, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is offering unequivocal support for Sheriff Sally Hernandez in the face of costly punishment meted out by Gov. Greg Abbott in response to Hernandez’s new policies regarding immigration enforcement.

“We have done an extensive review of those policies, and it is plain that under current federal and state law, the sheriff’s policies are well within the current law,” Eckhardt said at a relatively packed press conference in downtown Austin on Wednesday afternoon.

The judge organized the conference to respond to Abbott’s decision to immediately halt $1.5 million in Criminal Justice Division grants distributed to the county via the Office of the Governor. Abbott had warned of the cuts soon after Hernandez announced on Jan. 20 that her office would no longer honor most requests from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to detain potentially undocumented immigrants at the county jail for further investigation.

Nevertheless, an unperturbed Hernandez enacted the policy on Wednesday morning, and the governor, who has framed the ICE detainer issue as a matter of public safety, swiftly responded by yanking the grants.

Late Wednesday morning, Abbott tweeted, “Today I cut funding to Travis County because of its Sanctuary City policy. Stiffer penalties coming soon. #txlege”

The county relied on the Criminal Justice Division money to fund several programs within both district and county courts that focus on family violence outreach, prostitution prevention and drug diversion, among other services.

The judge slammed Abbott’s decision as a matter of “retribution for a lawful but political stance that is adverse to his political stance.” She also pointed out that counties are administrative extensions of state government.

“We do the state’s business. When the state cuts off our ability to do its business, it is cutting off its ability to govern,” Eckhardt said. “We want that revenue back not for selfish purposes. We want that revenue to do the state’s work.”

Eckhardt said the county has no interest in letting the defunded programs languish, and she pledged to look for other alternative revenue sources. However, given the constraints of the county budget and in light of Abbott’s promised “stiffer penalties,” Eckhardt acknowledged that county residents could feel some pain.

She noted that under the Texas Constitution, counties are only legally obligated to provide a judiciary and a jail. All other programs, including law enforcement and county roads, are purely discretionary, she said.

“If funding continues to be pulled from our state court and county courts at law, we will have no choice but to shift revenues away from our discretionary programs into our mandatory court and jail programs. That is not good for Travis County residents,” Eckhardt stated.

The judge explained that she is avoiding any involvement with the “political rhetoric” swirling around what she says is a matter of “the rule of law.” Eckhardt also concluded a letter she sent to the governor on Wednesday with an offer “to explore ways in which we may step beyond our disagreements and return to the effective, efficient and fair administration of justice.”

However, while Eckhardt extended the olive branch, two other local officials pounded Abbott’s decision. In a statement, City Council Member Greg Casar argued that “in a cowardly and unethical attempt to punish our Sheriff politically, Abbott is hurting vulnerable people in Austin and Travis County. Abbott’s actions are unacceptable, unethical, un-American, and unconstitutional.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Lloyd Doggett cranked the heat even higher, saying, “This lawless intimidation puts politics over Texas veterans and public safety. Its vindictiveness is more like Russian President (Vladimir) Putin’s authoritarian regime than our democracy. His anti-immigrant hysteria damages local law enforcement and our entire community.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, Hernandez herself told a pack of reporters that she has no plans to back down in the face of Abbott’s threats.

“This is political and my policy is practical, and again it’s based on common sense,” said Hernandez. “I am upholding the law and the Constitution and I am complying with ICE.”

She also said that she had no idea that she would cause such a stir in only her first month in office. Said Hernandez, “I was not expecting this. I did not realize it was going to be that political.”

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