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3:20 p.m. Nov 2: This story has been updated with a new headline and the date for the trial.
Embattled El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales will face a rare jury trial on whether she should be removed from office, County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal ruled on Tuesday.
Rosales and her lawyer, Luis Yanez, issued a statement late Tuesday saying the removal process undermines the choice of voters who elected her in 2020.
“It is saddening that El Paso County and the families we represent will now have to endure more disruption amidst an important time for the DA’s office to serve justice throughout our community,” the joint statement said. “My loyalty and focus will remain on improving the criminal justice system and the DA’s office as a whole despite this political distraction.”
District Judge Tryon Lewis of Odessa, who is presiding over the case, has set the trial for March 13. A scheduling hearing, to establish the timelines, has been set for Nov. 10 in the 346th District Court in the Enrique Moreno El Paso County Courthouse.
The state law governing court petitions to remove a district attorney from office makes the county attorney the representative of the state.
In a brief court document filed Tuesday, Bernal said she had decided to move forward with the removal effort.
“Please take notice that on November 1, 2022, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, on behalf of the State of Texas, files this notice of intent to proceed and to prosecute this removal action against the District Attorney for the 34th Judicial District, Yvonne Rosales, from office pursuant to Chapter 87 of the Local Government Code. The State of Texas hereby requests that this case be set for a status hearing to determine a trial date and enter a scheduling order,” the filing said.
Bernal had until Tuesday to accept the case. If she had refused to accept it, the petition to remove Rosales that was filed in August would have died.
Where some states allow recall elections to remove officials between election cycles, under Texas law, county officers can only be ousted through a civil court process described as removal by petition and trial.
On Aug. 24, El Paso criminal defense attorney Omar Carmona initiated this process by submitting a legal petition to remove Rosales for alleged incompetency and official misconduct. He cited prosecutorial vindictiveness in a murder trial, a sharp decline in family violence prosecutions, the dismissal of hundreds of criminal cases because of failure to seek indictments, and handling of the prosecution of the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart mass shooting.
Rosales and her legal team have denied all of the petition’s allegations against her, and attempted to get the case dismissed. They’ve alleged that the effort to oust her is part of a broad conspiracy.
Carmona applauded the decision by Bernal, but said he understands the case is still not over.
“I’ve always been confident about what I wrote in the original petition,” he said.
“I still believe the case for removal is strong. I applaud Ms. Bernal and her team for being thoughtful and diligent in their work before deciding to move forward. I know this was not an easy decision on their part, but it is the right thing to do.”
Carmona said he hopes Rosales resigns, instead of going to trial. “I believe that she will see the writing on the wall,” he said.
The County Attorney’s Office said that it would not be commenting on the removal case or giving interviews.
The law allows, but does not require, the judge to suspend Rosales from office while the removal effort proceeds.
Petitions to remove elected county officials in Texas are rare. A district attorney in Tyler was ousted via this process in 2018, according to a review of media reports.
Rosales took office in January 2021, succeeding longtime DA Jaime Esparza.
Disclosure: In a Sept. 3 court filing responding to the removal petition, DA Yvonne Rosales alleged that El Paso Matters and its CEO, Robert Moore, are part of a “political conspiracy” to oust her. Moore said her filing is an attempt “to use the courts to intimidate and suppress a news organization whose coverage she doesn’t like.”