After a 214-day suspension, a judge ordered Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia to resume his position on the board citing delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Visiting state District Judge David Stith ruled Friday to allow Garcia to re-take his seat on the board after Stith had ruled to temporarily suspend him in November pending a jury trial.
That move last fall stems from a petition to have Garcia permanently removed that was filed by a former school district employee, Ricardo Lopez, in May 2019.
Lopez, himself, was arrested in November 2017 for allegedly trying to bribe a judge who, at the time, was presiding over a murder case but in the petition, he alleged that Garcia orchestrated the attempted bribery.
Further, Lopez alleges that Garcia, an attorney, maneuvered his way onto the legal defense team for the defendant in the case by allegedly offering a school employee a promotion and/or withholding pay raises so that they would solicit the family of the defendant on his behalf.
Garcia has denied the allegations and has never been charged.
Stith said Garcia’s attorneys had indicated they were prepared to go to trial but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, jury trials in Starr County were suspended until, at least, September.
“What that in effect does, when I have respondents that are wanting to go to trial and the court can’t give jury trial settings and I maintain my temporary suspension, that, in effect, makes that temporary suspension a full suspension,” Stith said. “Because even if I set this case for January, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to have jury trials in January.”
He added that the statute was clear that only a jury, not a judge, has the ability to permanently remove a school board member.
“And because of the COVID situation, we cannot have jury trials right now for the foreseeable future, most likely not until the end of the year and so that is the problem that the court is confronted with,” Stith said.
Starr County Attorney Victor Canales, who is representing the state in the case against Garcia, argued during Friday’s hearing that the delays due to COVID-19 were not unique to this case.
“These are extraordinary times, your honor; due process has been suspended so much so that the Texas Supreme Court has suspended any trials until after Aug. 1, 2020 including criminal defendants awaiting trial, in custody,” Canales said. “For the defendant to argue that, someway somehow, his due process rights to sit on a non-paid school board position are more important than a defendant sitting in jail, and should be treated differently than them, is the height of arrogance.”
After the hearing, Gocha Ramirez, one of Garcia’s attorneys, said he agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic had presented a unique problem for due process but said that didn’t mean due process was suspended completely.
“In fact, we’re actually looking at the due process much closer because of COVID-19,” Ramirez said. “Less arrests are being made, there are lower bonds being set so as not to violate people’s due process rights to hearings and trials — or to be released on bond.”
But with regard to courts, Canales said, there wasn’t much that courts could do.
“Nothing that they can do with regards to due process issues because you can’t have a jury trial,” Canales said. “It’s just that simple.”
“It’s not every day that you have pandemics,” he added, “and certainly not those that are as dangerous as this one that shut down our entire society, including our justice system.”
Canales said Stith’s decision was expected given that the judge heavily indicated he was leaning towards allowing Garcia back on the board during the last hearing.
Now, both sides wait for the judge to set a trial date which Stith said he would schedule for January.
However, that necessity for that will hinge on the result of the federal case against Garcia or the upcoming school board elections in November when he is up for re-election.
Garcia said Friday he had not yet decided whether or not he would run but was leaning towards doing so.