It was a sunny day on the lawn of the Texas governor’s mansion in early January 2019 when Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen sat before a press news conference about priorities for the newly convened biennial legislative session. Their remarks focused on reform of the school finance system, limiting the growth of property taxes, and providing economic growth opportunities across Texas.
But reporters pushed for an answer on whether the so-called bathroom bill from 2017 would be a priority in the new legislative session. This bill had failed spectacularly the prior session amid tireless media attacks and a corresponding messaging failure among Republicans to adequately justify its limited focus. Patrick’s response, “When you win the battle, you don’t have to fight the battle again,” was more a claim of credit for the Trump administration’s repeal of an Obama-era mandate on schools than a true claim of legislative victory.
Patrick’s explanation that “we won, and the people that want to keep talking about it want to just stir up the past” belied the bruising his reputation took and the widely held belief that the controversy cost Republicans seats in the November 2018 election. It also ignored the fact that the Trump administration reversal only covered part of the broader scope of the bathroom bill, and the problems the bill purported to solve still exist. While cloaked in self-congratulatory terms, the lieutenant governor’s surrender on the bathroom bill laid the groundwork for inaction this past session on a multitude of social issues, including a legislative solution to the issues raised in the James Younger case.
The James Younger Case Isn’t Going Away
It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of the James Younger situation and simply dismiss the current uproar as judicial activism by a leftist judge that was successfully rolled back because of widespread outrage. That would be an oversimplification that overshadows the larger issues in the case.
The case comes as part of the proceedings related to the divorce of James’ parents and James’ father Jeff Younger’s attempt to obtain sole managing conservatorship of James to protect his son and prevent further transgender efforts desired by the boy’s mother. Texas family law is complex and fraught with peril, as Jeff learned Tuesday when a Texas jury ruled against him. Instead of honoring his request, the jury awarded James’ mother sole managing conservatorship in a decision that echoed across the country — a decision the judge reversed last Thursday.
At this point, it appears the judge has restored some sanity into the situation by overturning the jury’s determination. The prior decree gave James’ mother the right to make decisions about James’s psychological and psychiatric care with only a duty to inform his father. Now it appears Jeff will have a “right to consent” to any such care, presumably including any puberty-blocking medical treatment.
While awarding him the “right to consent” offers Jeff a significant victory in the case, it is not true veto power, as James’ mother will still be able to periodically petition the court to overrule Jeff’s objections. So there is every expectation this will continue to play out in a courtroom unless the Texas Legislature steps in.
Prior Legislative Attempts Have Gone Nowhere
The legislative fight to protect James specifically, as well as the desire to outlaw irreversible transgender treatments with unproven puberty-blocking drugs on minors in Texas, began well before this case received national attention. It was a spring day in 2017 when Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a Republican from Coppell, Texas, was on the floor of the Texas House, and he received a phone call from his friend and constituent Jeff Younger. Jeff summarized the situation with James and asked Rinaldi for help.
Widely respected by colleagues for his thoughtful and intellectual approach to legislative solutions, Rinaldi began to closely study the issue but faced procedural and political barriers. Rinaldi described the environment within the House at the time, saying, “House leadership had made it clear they were intentionally avoiding so-called polarizing social issues, and the Senate was narrowly focused on the bathroom bill and was not willing to look at the bigger picture and tackle the broader problem.” His efforts went nowhere in the 2017 session.
Rinaldi lost his seat in November 2018. The Younger case was not a campaign issue during that election. Undeterred, Rinaldi continued to fight for James by raising awareness and working closely with a group of policymakers to find a way to advance legislation in the 2019 session. While legislative language was developed and supported by members in both chambers, the issue again went nowhere.
Matt Krause, a Republican representative from Fort Worth, lamented that in the 2019 session, leadership again “collectively decided that we needed to focus on big ticket items. While a lot of people understood this issue to be a focus of the Republican grassroots, the thinking was that we couldn’t afford to alienate any more voters.” Krause was quick to point out that the session did have some successes for social conservatives, and he argued this issue really shouldn’t have been avoided as a social issue, stating, “No matter what you believe on social issues, we should all agree about life-altering decisions for 7-year-olds like this.”
Krause has been at the forefront of trying to protect Texas’ children, working carefully over multiple legislative sessions to get SB 1207 passed into law this year, which dealt with protecting so-called medically fragile children, insisting at the time that “[disabled children are just as] fearfully and wonderfully made” as all other Texas kids. Krause has promised to introduce legislation and is currently evaluating the circumstances of the Younger case, looking at legislative language to ensure the “best policy possible” can move forward.
Will the Legislature Act?
Amid the firestorm, and prior to the judge’s adjustment of the jury’s verdict, Abbott tweeted, “FYI the matter of 7 year old James Younger is being looked into by the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.” It is unclear if the governor will advocate for legislation next session, and thus far he’s made no indication of whether he will call for a special session to address this or any other issues. The lieutenant governor has made no public statement about the issue since the controversy erupted.
As the largest Republican-controlled state, wherein Republicans have controlled both chambers of the statehouse since 2002, and every statewide officeholder has been Republican since 1998, Texas is looked at as both a bastion of hope for conservatives and a laboratory for conservative policy. But conservative activists advancing this type of legislative priority have been sidelined and portrayed as out of step with mainstream voters by their own elected officials.
The nationwide outrage this past week that included more moderate voters gives support to activists’ claims that this is a common-sense issue — but will Texas Republican leaders listen and #ProtectJamesYounger and children like him? Their track record gives one reason to doubt it.