My 1 on 1 Interview with Travis Co. Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Helping Keep Hope Alive

February 1st of this year Governor Greg Abbott did something that was reprehensible and politically motivated! As is her right, Sheriff Hernandez set her own policy which was not in line with Abbott’s political views.  Rather than cooperating with federal immigration officials by holding detainees suspected of being undocumented immigrants until Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent can arrive to retrieve them for deportation, Hernandez has focused on holding “detainers” who are the hardened criminal element ,those accused of murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking.

Abbott was furious she would not bow to his demands so he cut funding for programs that assist veterans, women and children run through Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s department. I was livid and had to take action. That night I went to “Go Fund Me” and set up the first account I had ever done for $1.5 million in donations to go to the sheriff’s department.

The next morning I called Sheriff Hernandez office where I was informed they could not accept donations by law and was referred to Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s office. I talked to her assistant who told me a fund was being set up and when they had more information they would let me know so I could transfer the money raised in my “Go Fund Me” to the fund. The fund became the “Travis County Stronger Together Fund” managed by the Austin Community Foundation. A check was presented to Sheriff Hernandez department this past week for $133,000. I am thrilled to say that $9717 of that was from the “Go Fund Me” account I started thanks to so many wonderful donors. Although we have not come anywhere close to replacing the $1.5 million dollars stolen by Abbott you can still donate to the fund. I have included the links to the donation and webpage for “Travis County Stronger Together” at the bottom of my article.

That night was the beginning of Abbott’s attack on undocumented immigrants that are here working and paying taxes and on Sheriff Hernandez and her department. In my interview with Judge Eckhardt we discuss SB4 the “Sanctuary City-Show Me Your Papers” discriminatory law crafted to go after Hernandez and other cities who would not comply with Abbott’s political view. We also discussed the planned ICE raids on Austin and Travis County orchestrated as revenge for Hernandez policy. Other topics we examined were the current lawsuits both against SB 4 and the state of Texas and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s suit against Austin, Sheriff Hernandez and the city of Austin.

My first question to Judge Eckhardt was about the ICE attacks that occurred in January that had been planned as targeted attacks after ICE denied this was retribution on Sheriff Hernandez. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin stated in an interview in March that he had been in on a briefing prior to the January ICE sweep and informed that the roundup would be taking place as a result of the sheriff’s new policy and because a meeting that had occurred between Hernandez and the ICE field office director didn’t go well.

Judge Eckhardt: That just corroborated my information. SB4 was written specifically because Sheriff Hernandez put in a written policy what other Sheriffs had already been doing. Sheriff Lupe Valdez (Dallas Co.) was essentially doing the same thing and had been and she was the subject of attacks from the previous legislative session but she didn’t write it into policy. So SB4 was written specifically targeted toward Sheriff Hernandez but meant to capture the activities of other sheriffs in the major metro areas who similarly were saying “Immigration” is not my mission “Public Safety” is my mission. Where someone was born, where the victim or the perpetrator is in most instances completely immaterial to my job. 

My second question to Judge Eckhardt was regarding Governor Abbott cutting the $1.5 million dollars, knowing this would not take away from sheriff’s salaries, but from Sheriff Hernandez budget for programs that helped  Veterans, children, women and people dealing with addiction. What does this say about Gov. Abbott’s concern for the people of Travis County?

Judge Eckhardt: Even worse than that. It didn’t take anything from Sheriff Hernandez. The $1.5 million dollars that he cut had nothing to do with immigration and also had nothing to do with the Sheriffs office. It was all in our court system, all in diversion programs, really really good programs that assist women, children and veterans and keep our community safe and healthy. It had nothing to do with immigration or the sheriff’s department. I wrote a couple of letters to Abbott, at the time his office was notifying Travis County that his office would be cutting these funds if Sheriff Hernandez did not stand down. I responded directly to him in writing both times saying “You are aware that these have nothing to do with immigration, You are aware, as a matter of fact I know you’re aware with regards to the “Parenting and Recovering Youth” program and a massive supporter of this program for a number of years so you are aware of the benefits of these programs and this funding cut will hurt human beings and that your accusations that we are acting outside of the law are wrong.  I know you do not believe that otherwise you would have not championed Senate Bill 4. It was a very painful time. I’ve had some dealings with the Governor in his previous incarnations as a lawyer, and at least in prior times, always struck me as a very reasonable man, a compassionate man and a good lawyer. This was not the person I had encountered previously. 

Next we discussed if Ken Paxton’s case against Austin, Mayor Adler, Austin City Council, Sheriff Hernandez and MALDEF was dismissed or heard? The complaint for declaratory judgment, filed in Austin federal court, names Sheriff Sally Hernandez, all of Austin’s City Council members, Mayor Steve Adler, interim City Manager Elaine Hart, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) as defendants.

Judge Eckhardt: The case against Travis County and the sheriff brought by Paxton is in front of a judge here (Austin) and we have a motion to dismiss that he is considering.

In a previous article I wrote I contacted Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Laurence Tribe and asked him if Paxton’s lawsuit was valid. Tribes response was “You simply can’t do this. Any competent federal judge would toss Paxton out of court under Article III. The Declaratory Judgment Act doesn’t trump the Constitution.”

Judge Eckhardt:  Exactly, That’s the basis of our motion to dismiss. There’s an important qualitative difference between the victims of a bill that’s about to become law, petitioning to have it prevented from becoming law because it’s unconstitutional, and that’s what’s happening in San Antonio. Entities and Individuals who actually have already been hurt, who have already been able to demonstrate damage are asking the judge “Please keep this law from going into effect while the courts can make a determination of whether or not it’s constitutional. That is totally, that is completely permissible and expected and that’s how it should work. The Case that Paxton has is an instance where a legislative body acted, presumably in the belief that they were acting constitutionally, otherwise they shouldn’t have acted at all, saying “Please tell us that we acted constitutionally”, that is as Tribe says 101 Declaratory, it’s ridiculous, you can’t bootstrap your own actions saying, you can’t say “We’re not sure if we acted constitutionally, can you go ahead and check our homework?” 

My next question was concerning SB 4 being a discriminatory “Show Me Your Papers” law set to go into effect September 1st. Local Austin news is showing that many undocumented immigrants aren’t showing up to doctors appointments and children aren’t going to school for fear of ICE picking up and taking away parents from their children. What is your advice to those immigrants living in fear for their safety (forced into the shadows)?

Judge Eckhardt:  I have had really really painful conversations with a lot of folks in the community. It’s been really difficult. It reminds me a lot of painful conversations I used to have when I was a family violence prosecutor with people who were living under threat. My best advice is, just as I used to tell victims of family violence, the best advice is to be brave, take care of yourself, get the necessary care that you need and also have a plan in place. Gather your trusted friends around you, have a plan in place in the event that a member of your family is deported. Have a safety plan, have a plan in place with how you would communicate, how you would connect back up. Where your important documents are kept, keep a copy of your important documents with a friend, make sure that your bank account is in order and that you’ve got the appropriate bank documents, whether it’s a debit card or your cell phone program works internationally. These are painful painful things to go through. There are some wonderful organizations that help people step through the process of having a safety plan in the event that one of their loved ones is deported on their way to work. Unfortunately that has happened in our community. People that have no criminal history whatsoever are picked up on their way to work and three days later are calling from Mexico saying I’ve accepted voluntary deportation and I’ve been deposited on the Mexico side of the border with just the clothes on my back. 

Governor Abbott is trying to make State laws such as SB 6 the “Bathroom Bill”, that will override local protections in cities and counties taking power away that protects the vulnerable in our communities. How do we protect immigrants, transgender students and others in need if he accomplishes this?

Judge Eckhardt: There’s no doubt that my state is engaged in a really open effort to establish a “white heterosexual Christianity” as a preferred status. There’s no doubt and that is really abominable. That’s really abhorrent to the tenants on which our nation was founded. 

An issue that really bothers me is the fact that it seems that Governor Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are trying to make Christianity the State Religion of Texas, your thoughts?

Judge Eckhardt: There’s absolutely no doubt that this is an open attempt to make white heterosexual christianity a preferred status and everyone who is not of that preferred status can be rejected for any number of services. Status, essentially it’s a matter of belonging, it’s an open effort to say if you are not white heterosexual and christian you don’t belong. 

And if SB 4 the “Sanctuary City” law goes into effect on September 1st?

Judge Eckhardt: That’s the very reason for our case in San Antonio, the case that we’ve joined that so many others have joined too, so many other counties have joined, so many other cities have joined it. The very point of it is to ask the courts to speedily rule this law unconstitutional and keep it from going into effect while they are making that determination. So that’s already in the works. As far as what Travis County can do and what individuals living in Travis Co. can do to help our international community, we are a very very very international county, very diverse from all over the world. What we can do as Travis Co. as a governmental entity is continue to keep our community safe irrespective of where somebody was born. To pursue justice, to hold perpetrators accountable, particularly those who perpetrate crimes against individuals based on where they are from, what color their skin is or what sexual orientation they have . Those who would perpetrate crimes against people in order to show that they don’t belong. We will continue to hold people accountable for that kind of activity. And what we can do as individuals, if folks would like to contribute to “Stronger Together” that’s very helpful to us, also individuals can reach out to their neighbors, can talk to their friends and their neighbors, people that they work with, people that they work for, people that they employ saying “I want to be part of your safety plan” 

In the upcoming special session beginning on July 18th Senator Hall has submitted SB 23- A statewide pre-emption bill that would prohibit counties, municipalities, and other political subdivisions from adopting or enforcing laws or ordinances that prohibit discrimination on a basis not protected in state law, and would void all current nondiscrimination ordinances such as those adopted by Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Plano. What would we do if a bill like this passes?

Judge Eckhardt: We will definitely challenge it. I believe there is good reason to have some hope in the court system. And as we challenge it though, remember the government in the United States, at least for now (laughing), is still of, by, and for the people, so even if the state is imposing these ridiculous restrictions on our cities every business can establish their own rules with regard to their bathrooms, every private citizen can do what we can because we are the government, it starts with us, it starts in our own homes, it starts in our businesses, and it starts in the ballot box, so if the state imposes these ridiculous restrictions on our cities we need to very demonstratively show what our preferences are by showing it in our homes, showing it in our businesses and showing it by our vote. That is the impact! We are the government. 

What would you say to the people of Travis County right now who want to take action and help stop this type of discrimination being passed in the 85th legislative and special session?

Judge Eckhardt: As far as government of by and for the people where you’re seeing that happening is at the local governmental level. You are seeing the front lines of the survival or our democracy in your city government, county government, your school board, this is where we are going to keep hope alive….so help us keep hope alive, help us keep democracy alive, we will combat this kind of authoritarian governmental activity in our own democracy, we will weed it out from the ground up. It doesn’t get weeded out from the top down. That’s not how democracy works. So engage in your local governmental activities. It makes a big difference.

Having now met Judge Eckhardt in person, I can tell she is the kind of person you want in your corner fighting for justice when inequality takes place in any form. She is a brilliant compassionate woman who has made a career of helping others, those with less than, and those in abusive situations. Judge Eckhardt is on the right side of the law and history and I’m proud to stand beside her in fighting for immigrant’s rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. She will always be there to help protect citizens who need her support.

You can still donate directly to the Travis County Stronger Together Fund and help support these important programs for Veterans, Women and Children that Governor Greg Abbott cut funding to. Thanks for your support. If you want to read more about “Travis County Stronger Together” click on the link.