“Texas needs judicial reform,” declares the headline for an Austin American-Statesman editorial condemning the state’s current system for picking judges. “[N]o system is as unfavorable to justice as the partisan election of judges,” the editorial asserts.
What’s wrong with partisan judicial elections? The editorial says:
“Campaigns are expensive, and judges must seek contributions to run for office. Naturally their major donors tend to be lawyers, businesses and corporations — people and entities that often appear in court before them. It is a system flush with potential conflicts of interest. Thus it also is a system that harms the public’s confidence in justice and judges alike.” Read more
Judges and the general public are wary of the money being poured into partisan judicial elections in Texas, ramping up talks of reform.
The Texas Tribune interviewed Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, and David Lyle, senior counsel for state advancement at the American Constitution Society, to discuss money in the courts.
“The fear [judges] have…is that what it means to elect a judge is changing under our feet. They’re forced to dial for dollars from people who then appear before them in court and in every controversial case, they have to look over their shoulder. … And there is a fear that the public believes that justice is for sale,” said Brandenburg. “Even more chilling … we’ve done polling that shows that nearly half of state judges agree with that statement, that campaigns and cash are affecting courtroom decisions.” (For more information on these polls click here.)
Lyle touched on the fact that a lot of the issues with money in judicial elections relate to business interests.
When advocates interested in changing the method for choosing Texas judges met recently in Austin, they heard from Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg (photo). The advocates are interested in forging a larger, stronger network to achieve change, and Brandenburg spoke of the dangers of partisan judicial elections and of potential reforms.
“We want judges to be accountable to the law and the Constitution, not to special interests and partisans. The money can flip that equation, and that’s the risk,” Brandenburg told the (Austin) American-Statesman.
According to the newspaper, candidates for the judiciary are required to run in partisan elections in Texas, and polls show that voters believe “Texas justice is being sold to the highest bidder.”
Brandenburg said, “If the system is so politicized that they have to be politicians first and judges second … you’ll have a lot of good people who say they’ll pass. Conversely, you start to encourage a category of people who view the judiciary as just another steppingstone to a political career.” Read more
On Monday, Planned Parenthood asked the Supreme Court to reinstate an order that would prevent Texas from implementing part of a new law that limits access to abortions through heightening the restrictions placed on the doctors performing the procedure. This comes after more than one third of the state’s abortion providing facilities have been forced to halt procedures and drastically reduce their number of patients.
In order to prevent implementation of the law the high court will have to vacate a decision made on Thursday by the 5th Circuit to lift an injunction barring a challenged section of Texas House Bill 2 from taking effect. Courthouse News Service noted that the controversy over the case has included an 11-hour filibuster by Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis, who recently declared her candidacy for Texas governor.
The appeal from Planned Parenthood is directed to Justice Scalia, who covers Texas as the circuit court judge for the region. For more coverage of Texas, see past Gavel Grab posts here.
Blogging in the New Yorker, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin offers his views about the significance of the elevation of Nathan Hecht to become chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
The rise of Justice Hecht (photo), who first won election to the court in a campaign managed by Karl Rove, reflects “the transformation of state supreme courts into engines of conservative change,” Toobin writes. Justice Hecht was named to the top judge’s post by Gov. Rick Perry following the resignation of Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who Toobin labels “a relative moderate by Texas standards.”
Justice Hecht surfaced in national news reports in 2005 when he commented favorably about President George W. Bush’s nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers for the U.S. Supreme Court. Miers ultimately withdrew her candidacy.
A Houston Chronicle article said Justice Hecht is the longest serving judge on the court. It said he currently is battling a $29,000 fine, imposed by the Texas Ethics Commission in 2008, for “accepting and failing to report an illegal political contribution from a law firm.” A Star-Telegram editorial headline declared, “Hecht is not everybody’s pick.”
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson will resign at the end of September, it was announced on Tuesday, according to the Texas Tribune. He was the first African-American chief justice of the court, and he advocated vigorously for reform of partisan judicial elections in Texas.
The Texas Tribune quoted Justice Jefferson as saying about judicial election reform:
“We’ve been trying for several decades to move toward a merit selection system. In Houston, you see five or six pages of judges who voters are electing. The vote is often based on party affiliation, which is not a good indication of judicial talent, or on the person’s name… or on how much money they have been able to raise. None of those have any effect on whether someone will be a good judge or not.”
Across the nation, every branch of government is feeling the impact of the automatic, across-the-board government spending cuts known as sequestration. However, the judicial system is being hit particularly hard.
In an interview for the Texas Public Radio program The Source, federal public defender Maureen Franco describes how budget cuts are impacting Texas’s western district. The picture that she paints is a dismal one. In February, the public defender’s office faced a 9% budget cut, which Franco said the court was able to sustain because it had been so scrupulously conservative in its spending.
However, in March the office was notified that it would have to cut its spending by an additional 14% for the next fiscal year to comply with sequestration. The result is a sobering combination of layoffs for 33% of the office’s public defenders, extended case delays, nineteen furlough days, and a 10% salary reduction for all staff.
In the meantime, the number of cases coming before the public defender’s office is actually on the rise. The public defender’s office for the Western District of Texas is projected to represent 13,000 indigent individuals this year which is already above the number of cases provided for by the court’s budget. Read more
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