On Wednesday, the Signal spoke with state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, who serves as speaker pro tempore of the Texas House.
Now entering his sixth term, Moody has filed 11 bills for the upcoming session, mostly relating to his focus on criminal justice. They include a bill to abolish the death penalty, a bill for extreme risk protective orders (known as a red flag law), and a bill to legalize the retail of marijuana in the state.
Here’s what Moody had to say about the legislation he’s fighting for, the “difficult” upcoming session, and what he’s thankful for this Thanksgiving.
What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?
Man. It’s been a long year. I’m thankful for family, for health. I think if this year has crystalized anything it’s that there are many things we take for granted on a daily basis. And this year has pushed those things to the forefront and you really do value them. I’ve gotten more time with family this year as difficult as it has been. I spent time with my family and time with my kids that I would not have had otherwise.
Are they old enough to be going to school yet?
Yeah, I’ve got a six-year-old and a four-year-old. So a first grader and a pre-K.
Wow, so they’re going to Zoom Pre-K?
Mhm. Yeah, those are challenges and it’s not easy. But quite honestly, those are hours that they would have been at school and I would not have had the opportunity to watch them and see them learn and grow. So, I’ll take that as a positive.
What about when it comes to Texas politics?
I’m thankful for the opportunity that I think we have to hit reset on what has been an increasingly negative environment. I don’t think the window to change that track is very large, but I think it exists. Right now as we move out of this pandemic, to come closer together no matter what perspective we come from, to really focus on healing, healing people in our state, both on the health and economic front. My hope is that we do that in a very productive and collaborative way. I’m thankful for that opportunity. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.
I wanted to talk a little about criminal justice, which is what a lot of your work on the legislature has focused on. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the first bill you filed this session is a bill to abolish the death penalty. Can you talk to me about that?
Since my time in the legislature, I’ve been on quite a personal journey in terms of my philosophy surrounding capital punishment.
In 2017, I was granted the opportunity to preside as chair of the criminal jurisprudence committee. And we delved deep into multiple issues related to the death penalty. Former Speaker Joe Strauss permitted us to continue researching that topic during the interim. It was at that time and through work on multiple cases, but most notably Bobby Moore’s case out of Harris County, that I came to a very clear conclusion that no matter what we do in terms of reforms around the death penalty, it is an inherently flawed system and it’s one that ultimately needs to be done away with.
With the retirement of Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston, who traditionally carried that bill, I decided to ask if it was okay for me to carry it along with Rep. Harold Dutton, who has also historically carried it.
I think it’s an important conversation to have and it’s not an easy one. But there’s nothing that crystallizes the power of the government more than capital punishment. And it is an arena that has a myriad of problems.
In fact, the first four bills I filed this session had to do with capital punishment. This is something that I know won’t take one session, two sessions, and may not even be rectified by the time I leave the legislature. But it’s a conversation we have to advance. There are voices on both sides of the aisle that have begun earnestly discussing it. Last session we passed four different death penalty reform bills off the House floor. I don’t know when or if that’s ever happened.
My view is if we’re not willing to dive into some of those complex topics then I’m not sure why we’re given the opportunity to be in office.
You’ve also filed a bill to legalize marijuana and tax it. Tell me about that.
Sure, there’s been a growing conversation in Texas to step away from the status quo when it comes to cannabis laws. That conversation has taken multiple forms.
In the past, I’ve filed decriminalizing legislation. This coming session that bill has been authored and will be carried by Erin Zwiener who represents Hays just south of Travis County. And you’ve got multiple members that are working on medical cannabis reform.
In the House, at least, we have never even attempted to look at a retail market. And I thought given the economic situation that we’re in, also given the fact that for the first time ever a majority of Texans support a retail market in Texas, that it was time to push that bill forward and broaden out the conversation so that we can move away from the status quo.
This new bill that you filed is going even further than the one that passed in the House last year [to make possession of marijuana a misdemeanor], which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put a stop to in the Texas Senate. What are the prospects for marijuana-related reforms passing this year with Patrick still running things?
You know there have been hurdles that we have faced in the past in discussing cannabis legislation and we’ve been able to overcome those hurdles.
I mean when I started in the legislature, I was a former prosecutor who had literally put people in jail for small possession of marijuana. That’s who I was when I showed up at the capital. And now I’m filing a retail cannabis bill.
So people can change their minds, they can change their hearts on these issues — and very rapidly Texans are changing their hearts and minds on these issues. Do I think it’s an easy task? No. I think it’s a challenge, but like multiple other issues in criminal justice reform, there is a growing bipartisan chorus to do things differently.
And when you have decriminalization, medical cannabis, and retail cannabis, all those things being moved forward in Texas, they don’t work against one another. They’re three lanes of conversation that allow us to move the ball down the field as far as we can in any given session.
Do I think it’s a slam dunk bill that’s going to pass no matter what? No, I’m not naive enough to think that, but I do know that the people outside the capitol building that we represent are increasingly more in favor of this legislation, so ultimately the people inside the building will be brought to that same conclusion.
We just came out of an election where Republicans were extremely aggressive on the issue of police funding. No one in the statehouse, as far as I know, supports defunding the police, but at the same time, it’s just politics. Do you think this environment will make it difficult to carry forward criminal justice or police-related legislation?
As someone who has been in a frontline district, who has been in competitive November elections, I know that a lot is said in those elections. But politics is one thing and policy is quite another.
My hope is that the moment for politics is passed and we can enter into a moment where we can work on substantive policy. I think if we clear our minds about it, we can come to a good consensus about ways we need to change policing in Texas.
We have use-of-force standards that are not uniform, that are problematic and that lead to bad outcomes for people, mostly people of color. If we’re not willing to confront that, then we’re not being serious about the charge that we have as legislators.
Quite honestly, we have placed multiple tasks in the hands of police and prosecutors that don’t belong there.
We look at something that’s challenging, substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness; all these things are all very complicated issues and very difficult to deal with and we as policymakers throw our hands up and then we go, “put in the hands of police and prosecutors!”
Well, that’s not fair to them, those are not issues that are best dealt with in the criminal justice system. So that’s not anti-cop, that’s not anti-police. That is understanding there’s a skillset in policing that should be aimed in one direction and there are other better ways to handle some of these complex issues. It doesn’t mean they have to be completely disentangled from law enforcement depending on what we’re talking about, but there are a lot of them that need to be handled separately.
I made this comment not long ago, kids growing up played cops and robbers, they didn’t play cops and individuals suffering from severe depression and suicidal agitation.
So let’s think about ways that we can better approach very complex situations. It doesn’t mean you’re anti-police. The all or nothing approach to this is really not productive. We don’t get anywhere when we jam everybody into their corners and make things look like there’s some sort of binary choice in front of us, there’s not.
Is that a task that will be easily achieved in the next session? No, but it’s one that we have to undertake because of the situations that we’ve had with no-knock warrants and use of force, we can’t turn a blind eye.
We have a registry in our state for teachers that have improper conduct so that way they can’t go and get hired in another district. Why in the world do we not have that for law enforcement? Makes no sense.
Those are very simple concepts that can make the system better or fairer. And no one should be averse to that conversation.
You’re also on the redistricting committee, what kind of fight can Democrats expect when it comes to the new congressional and state district lines?
For the time ever we will be redistricting without the mechanism known as preclearance, that doesn’t exist anymore. It used to be that any maps created in Texas had to pre-cleared [by the federal governement], that has been tossed by the Supreme Court.
So we are in unchartered territory.
I’ve never served in a redistricting session. Last time I was defeated in an election and did not serve in the redistricting session. The district I now represent was litigated all the way to the Supreme Court in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor talked about the odd shape of the district out here in El Paso. So while I didn’t participate in the session a decade ago I certainly felt the effects of what gerrymandering can do.
Ultimately we want fair maps, we want a fair and equitable process. Having never been through the process I don’t know what to expect. But if we stick to the core principle of fairness then that I think is the best outcome for everybody.
If history is a teacher, redistricting is a hyper-partisan process, a hyper-political process that tends to not be defined by fairness. But I know there will be people that have the same outlook that I do and are working very hard to make sure that we have the most open and transparent process we can engage in given the rules.
Is there anything else you want to talk about relating to the upcoming session?
It’s hard for me to walk away from the conversation from the next session without thinking about the events of August 3, 2019. That is a moment that has changed everyone’s lens here in El Paso.
It happened after the last session so this will be the first session we go back after that tragedy.
We do have a difficult session ahead of us. The pandemic sitting on top of everything makes any bill hard to pass. But I know and I’m not the only one who feels strongly about this, we have to start making moves to create safety around firearms, whatever that means, within the confines of constitutional rights.
And I’m not a stranger to this conversation, I’ve carried the red flag law before. But we cannot continue to allow for the situation that we’ve had in Texas. Our storage laws are antiquated and we have accidental shootings all the time; we allow access to firearms to folks that probably shouldn’t have access to them, and we need to give tools to state law enforcement that are available to federal law enforcement so that they can do their job as well.
We can’t walk away from session without engaging in a very meaningful debate around that. And the other part of that is to hold people accountable for the language that they use. The events of August 3rd were sadly very predictable and many of us had talked about it prior to that.
Aiming hate and vitriol at the border, whether it be El Paso or anywhere else with people with Brown skin. That has consequences. We told people when we debated Senate Bill 4. This is going to cause violence in our community. This is going to create fear of people in the border community. This is going to put a target on our back, we told them that. And in a very real way, someone pulled the trigger here in our community. And we need to hold people accountable for reckless, violent language because it has consequences and we felt it in a very real way.
I’ve said since that day, that my goal will be to legislate with a lens of love and compassion, and understanding. That doesn’t I’m always going to agree with somebody, but I’m not going to come at them from a position of hate because that doesn’t get us anywhere. And I want people to reciprocate, and it’s certainly counter to most political narratives that you read today, but we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard if we want the system to be better. That’s my focus, that’s my goal and I will certainly ask for others to act accordingly.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org