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Chief Justice: Offer Legal Aid For Vets, Reform Truancy Laws

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AUSTIN — Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, in his first State of the Judiciary address Wednesday, asked lawmakers to approve legal funding for military veterans. He also said that laws making it a criminal offense to skip school are not working and need to be reformed.

During a joint session of the Senate and House, Hecht said that funding for the judiciary is roughly one-third of 1 percent of the state budget. At the top of Hecht's wish list is $4 million for a new legal assistance program for veterans, which would be supplemented with $1.5 million from the Texas Veterans Commission.

“Our military cannot return from risking their lives in defense of our freedoms and values only to find that the justice system they fought for has left them behind,” said Hecht, a veteran of the U.S. Naval Reserve's JAG Corps.

In a later press conference, Hecht praised a bill by Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Republican Rep. Sarah Davis that would expand funding for civil aid, including aid that benefits veterans. Also present at the conference was Mick Engnehl, a former U.S. Army mechanic who was honorably discharged in 2011.

Engnehl was stationed at Fort Hood in 2009, when he was shot twice by Maj. Nidal Hasan during a rampage. He depended on legal aid for a couple of cases, he said, including a custody dispute over a 6-year-old boy he'd raised since birth and then legally adopted.

“Now, legally, I can be called his father,” Engnehl said. “I can't even express my gratitude to the people who helped me.”

Hecht, who was first elected to the Supreme Court of Texas in 1988, also asked lawmakers to address truancy and attendance laws. Each year, he said, there are about 100,000 criminal charges filed against Texas students who skip school. In a later interview, Hecht said he supports decriminalizing truancy.

Hecht told lawmakers, “Maybe it's not working. Playing hooky is bad, but is it criminal?” (AP)