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Why is someone suing to get Travis County DA José Garza out of office — and what comes next?

A person wearing a suit and smiling, with a couple people behind him.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
Travis County District Attorney José Garza cruised to victory in the Democratic primary this spring.

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A Travis County resident is trying to remove District Attorney José Garza from office.

Betsy Dupuis filed a lawsuit Friday under House Bill 17, which allows anyone in a county to try to remove that county's top prosecutor. Her complaint is similar to a previous one filed against the DA. Dupuis also told KXAN that Garza's office mishandled a case after she accused someone of sexual assault.

HB 17, which took effect in September, has yet to be used in court.

Supporters of the law argue that some district attorneys in the state have gone “rogue" by, in their estimation, not enforcing laws, allowing folks to get out of jail more easily or dropping cases altogether.

Garza's office isn’t prioritizing low-level offenses like marijuana possession, opting to dismiss some cases rather than locking up residents. Garza has also said he will not investigate cases involving abortion access.

In her petition, Dupuis cites Garza's marijuana and abortion policies as reasons to remove him — as well as his prosecution of police officers accused of misconduct.

Opponents say the law undermines the will of voters, who elect district attorneys, and that it’s a way for the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature to meddle in Democratic counties, like Travis County.

Garza cruised to a primary victory this spring and faces Republican Daniel Betts in the November general election. The traditionally blue county typically elects Democrats.

At a news conference with congressional Democrats on Monday, an attorney representing two Texans being prosecuted for getting abortion-related care said HB 17 uses an enforcement mechanism similar to the state’s abortion ban.

"What HB 17 did was deputize every single person in Texas to go after every single prosecutor in Texas. It makes no sense," Austin Kaplan said. "There are 254 counties. There are untold numbers of prosecutors ... and all of them now are subject to attack from [anyone] across Texas for their decisions."

There have been a couple attempts to remove elected officials since HB 17 took effect. A petition in Hays County to remove District Attorney Kyle Higgins was dropped, and an earlier attempt to get Garza removed failed because the petitioner was being prosecuted by his office for drug possession. The law allows any county resident to file a petition to remove a prosecutor — as long as they're not being prosecuted in that county.

A hearing in the latest attempt to remove Garza is scheduled for May 16. The case will be heard in a Comal County court, with a Republican judge presiding and a Republican prosecutor from Bell County.

That political divide underscores all of this. If a prosecutor is successfully removed, Gov. Greg Abbott would appoint someone to take over.

State Rep. Donna Howard, who voted against the bill, said that erodes the will of voters who elect prosecutors to do their jobs.

"We knew it could be misused to target DAs for political reasons under the guise of policy, disagreements rather than actual misconduct," she said. "No DA prosecutes all crimes; all DAs use prosecutorial discretion to determine how best to serve those who elected them within their available resources.”

Howard and other Democrats said Monday the petition filed Friday is identical to the earlier one — pointing out that it even includes the same typos. They said the petition was initially submitted by Martin Harry, who ran against Garza for DA in 2020 and who has been shopping possible plaintiffs on social media. They also point out that the alleged misconduct Dupuis accuses him of took place before the law went into effect and is not enforceable in this instance.

Garza has said the case is politically motivated. In a statement published Monday, Dupuis said that's not the case and that she wants accountability on the part of his office.

"While the petition focuses on Garza’s politically framed policies, upon legal advice, I saw signing it as the most viable way to initiate an investigation into the corruption of Garza’s office," she said.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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