The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee approved a bill on May 3 that would “end straight ticket voting for the state’s judicial offices,” states Gavel to Gavel.
Straight ticket ballots allow voters to select all candidates belonging to a political party, including judges. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has argued for ending the practice in recent years, the blog says.
Some argue that it has caused Texas counties to clear their bench entirely of one political party or another.
Texas “has one of the worst systems” for electing state judges, says former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips. State judicial elections routinely rake in thousands of dollars, mostly in contributions from law firms, states a Texas Tribune article.
Twenty-two states including Texas hold judicial elections. Phillips says his law firm has donated “tens of thousands of dollars” to state supreme court races. Large sums of campaign contributions have led to proposals for changing Texas’s system of judicial selection.
Rep. Richard Pena Raymond filed a bill last month mandating recusal of judges in cases where they received $2,500 or more from someone who appears before them in court. “The public wants to hold the judiciary in higher esteem than other parts of the government,” he said.
While some have argued in favor of switching to merit selection, Supreme Court Justice Don Willett argues that Texas voters want to choose their judges. “They want a voice, even as they say that judicial fundraising raises appearance concerns.” Read more
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, Texas Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson has spoken out “with great clarity and candor about the desperate legal conditions of his fellow Texans” who are indigent, a legal journalist writes.
Justice Jefferson eloquently addressed “the immediate need to secure for them all the right to ‘liberty and justice,’” Andrew Cohen reports at The Atlantic online. The judge made his remarks in an annual state of the judiciary address. He spotlighted the difference between access to justice for the rich and for the poor:
“For those who can afford legal services, we have a top-notch judicial system. Highly qualified lawyers help courts dispense justice fairly and efficiently. But that kind of representation is expensive. A larger swath of litigation exists in which the contestants lack wealth, insurance is absent, and public funding is not available. Some of our most essential rights – those involving families, homes, and livelihoods – are the least protected. Veterans languish for months before their disability, pension, and educational benefits arrive. Read more
Unlike their counterparts on the federal bench, Texas judges go before the voters in elections. Candidates avoid political subjects, a Texas Tribune article notes, but it also asks, can they run without considering what voters may think of their decisions?
The Texas Supreme Court in the coming months may hear an appeal of a decision by a state district judge that, according to the article, Texas’s “financing of public schools was unconstitutionally inequitable and inadequate.”
The case comes as three of the Supreme Court’s nine justices will be up for election in 2014. Former Justice Dale Wainwright says the justices have to ignore the politics around a case. Read more
Twitter is mainly a political communications medium and a way to stay connected to the public, says Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Willett. Texas Lawyer calls Willett an avid user of Twitter with more than 1,300 followers.
Over Twitter messages with a Texas Lawyer reporter, Willett says the key for him is to follow interesting people online. He also said that using Twitter was a “byproduct of elected judges.”
According to the blog, Willett frequently posts political commentary, items of note from his personal life, photos and comments about sports.
Willett says he started using the social media website about three years ago when he was up for reelection. Voters are seeking more political information online, he noted.
The justice said he would never post any thoughts or opinions on pending cases, and utilizes common sense and self-censorship.
Texas judges are selected through partisan elections, and voters are allowed to utilize straight-ticket voting for judicial candidates. This leaves candidates vulnerable to the “whims of politics,” argues a Houston Chronicle opinion. by Dennis Courtland Hayes and Martha Hill Jamison.
Judicial candidates in Texas are either swept up by political parties, or crushed by them, the opinion says. In 2008, 19 incumbent judges aligned with the same political party were defeated in the election. The 2012 election saw 11 of 12 judicial candidates of the same party win.
Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips’ has argued that straight-ticket voting along party lines caused more than 100 district judges to lose an election. Read more
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has named his chief of staff, Jeffrey S. Boyd, to fill an opening on the state Supreme Court. The nominee must be confirmed by the state Senate, according to an Austin American-Statesman article.
When a seat becomes vacant on the Texas Supreme Court before a justice’s term is complete, the governor appoints a new justice subject to Senate approval. Judicial nominating commissions, used by many states to screen candidates for a governor’s appointment, are not part of the Texas judicial selection system.
Boyd (photo), who also has served as Perry’s general counsel, would face election in 2014 if he seeks a full term on the court. Including Boyd, Perry has appointed seven of the court’s nine justices.
Partisan judicial elections require judges to “run unabashedly the way Texas law defines them: as politicians,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett in an series of emails with the San Antonio Express-News.
Willet, whose re-election campaign spotlighting him as the “most conservative” candidate was recently used by The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen (see Gavel Grab) to highlight what is wrong with partisan judicial elections, says you can “hate the game,” but “don’t hate the player.”
With Willet’s race to be decided in the primary, he ran a campaign that “was 100% about appealing to conservatives.” On the bench, however, Willet emphasizes that judges should never let how they run for election impact how they rule.
“My vote follows the law, no matter who the parties are or what they believe,” Willet said. “If the law’s on your side, I won’t hesitate a nanosecond before ruling in your favor, and I don’t care one whit if you sleep in on Sundays or watch MSNBC.” Read more
With the rise in partisan politics, special interest group involvement and party-based judicial turnover, critics of the Texas judicial election system are looking for ways to make the way they choose judges “a little less idiotic,” reports a Houston Chronicle column by Patricia Hart.
Last week, Houston Sen. Dan Patrick filed a bill to eliminate straight-ticket voting in judicial elections (see Gavel Grab). Supporters of the bill say it would force voters to make “specific choices” and end the ousting of judges based on the “candidate at the top of the ticket.”
“It’s tiptoeing around the edges,” says Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice. Wheat says that while the proposal is “well-intentioned,” the bigger problem is the money judicial candidates are forced to raise to fund their election campaigns. While Texas does have limits in place on judicial campaign contributions, many candidates routinely draw support from their local legal community.
“These judges shouldn’t be taking a dime” from individuals who appear before them in court, asserts Wheat. “It’s a routine practice in the state of Texas. It should be criminalized, but it’s daily practice.” Read more
Electing judges is “no way to choose officials who can change Texans’ lives with their decisions,” states a Ft. Worth Star-Telegram editorial.
Of the eight million Texans who voted int he presidential election, only six million voted in four of six races to decide who would sit on the state’s highest appeals courts. With many voters simply skipping the down-ballot races or voting straight-ticket, it is entirely possible most Texans “might have known nothing about the candidates in the six statewide judicial contests.”
For many voters who chose the straight-ticket option, their vote didn’t count at all unless they voted Republican or Libertarian; The Democrats and the Green Party ran candidates in only two statewide races.
“Results like those make it increasingly difficult to buy into the fiction that Texans want to elect their judges,” the editorial states. Read more