Gavel Grab

Dark Money Regulation Approved in Texas

texas-state-flag_1_0Dark money groups in Texas may need to start disclosing their anonymous donors, according to an article in San Antonio Express-News. The Texas Ethics Commission unanimously approved a measure for groups to reveal donors if 25 percent or more of its expenditures are politically motivated or if political contributions account for more than 25 percent of its total contributions in a calendar year.

Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring disclosure of donors but it was vetoed by the Governor. For more background see Gavel Grab.

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Reform of Judicial Selection is Studied in Texas

Close to 60 different races will appear on some ballots in Texas on Election Day, reports News 4 San Antonio. Up for election will be justices from both state Supreme Courts, State District and County Judges, and Justices of the Peace, adding up to about 40 judicial contests. And every single race will be decided bytexas court a partisan election.

While 38 states hold some form of judicial election, Texas is one of the few where every judicial office is up for partisan election. The explicit partisanship of judicial elections in Texas results in political coattails that “can be very long and very strong,” News 4 notes.

Critics, among them judges and state lawmakers, have advocated for change. These critics, according to the report, contend that by electing judges, it “turns them into money-grubbing politicians beholden to their donors—who are often the same lawyers who appear in their courtrooms.”

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Should Texas Judges Be Appointed?

Over 70 judicial candidates are running for election in Texas 0n November 4th, reports local Texas news station KSAT 12. However, according to Dr. Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, voters base their decisions on “name, ethnicity, gender or party,” not on qualification.

texas-star-with-ropeFormer Judge Victor Negron claims he lost election twice because he was a Republican in an unsympathetic county. He attributes the current system to a roll of the dice “to see if maybe the lever pullers will select your party for that year.”

Negron advocates a system whereby a nonpartisan panel screens judicial candidates for the governor to appoint, and then the judge would stand for retention after four years. In this way, well-qualified judges are kept in office, but they are still accountable to voters.

“Right now,” Negron says, “poorly informed voters voting along party lines can do bad things to good judges.”

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Three Nominated for Federal Trial Bench in Texas

For the federal trial court in Texas, where judicial vacancies have been described at a “crisis point,” President Obama has nominated three individuals.  The Dallas Morning News said the White House had reached an apparent deal with the state’s Republican U.S. senators.

The  nominees are U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman of San Antonio, Texarkana lawyer Robert Schroeder III, and Sherman Magistrate Judge Amos Mazzant III. Pitman, if confirmed, would become the first openly gay federal judge in Texas.

“Any nominations are critically important, as Texas desperately needs to have as many of its nine district and two circuit vacancies filled,” Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, told the newspaper. “The judges are overwhelmed by crushing case loads and too few judicial resources.” Read more

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Opinion: U.S. Judicial Vacancies in Texas at 'Crisis Point'

Judicial-VacanciesWith eight U.S. district court judgeships vacant in Texas and two more vacancies coming, the ability of sitting federal judges to fulfill their constitutional responsibility is threatened and at “a crisis point,” retired U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson writes in an Austin American-Statesman op-ed.

There are a total of 52 trial court judgeships in the state. Sitting judges are working at a 120 percent capacity to handle their own heavy loads and those of others. With a potential vacancy rate of one out of every five judgeships, the courts are crippled, Judge Furgeson suggests:

“Imagine if the Dallas Mavericks or the San Antonio Spurs or the Houston Rockets played their games with only four players on the court. Things wouldn’t go well. Neither will things go well in our federal courts if these vacancies persist.” Read more

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Article Looks at Texas, Bad Judging, and Possible Reform

Texas State FlagFamily court Judge Denise Pratt of Texas, the subject of numerous complaints and an investigation by local prosecutors, resigned March 28 and suspended her campaign for re-election. Now some Texans are asking whether bad judges are merely a fact of life in a state with partisan judicial elections.

The state’s partisan election system “results in qualified and unqualified candidates getting swept in and out with political cycles,” a Houston Chronicle article said by way of paraphrasing the views of former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, a Republican. (In noting that Texas is one of eight states with partisan judicial elections, and that 14 hold partisan contested elections, the article quoted Justice at Stake.)

An interim legislative committee study of judicial selection in Texas is under way (see Gavel Grab). “We don’t know if it’s going to be taken seriously or not,” Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, told the Chronicle. “I think the concern of reformers over Texas judicial selection process is that we don’t always get the best qualified judges.” Read more

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GOP Incumbents Grab Victory in Texas Court Primary

In a Republican primary for the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday, three incumbents easily won their party’s nomination and a fourth faced no challenge. The incumbents are Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, seeking the same seat, and Justices Jeff Brown and Phil Johnson, who defeated their challengers, and Jeffrey Boyd, who was unopposed.

In a Democratic primary for the court, three Democrats faced no competition and will stand in November’s general election, according to the Associated Press. They are Bill Moody, Larry Meyers and Gina Benavides. The Texas Tribune said the Republican nominees will have an advantage in November; not since 1994 has a Democrat won statewide election in Texas.

You can learn background about the Republican primary by clicking here for Gavel Grab. Some Texas Democrats worked to support Republican  challengers, in order to oust Republican Supreme Court incumbents, in that primary.  “It shows how much more ‘politics as usual’ are spilling into races for courts,” said Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director (see Gavel Grab). 

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Article Cites 'New Politics' Report on Judicial Election Spending

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 10.57.02 AMAs 2014 judicial campaigns rev up in some states, a Huffington Post article recaps soaring independent spending in judicial elections, and it relies on a 2013 report co-authored by Justice at Stake.

Independent expenditures (by non-candidate entities) added up to 22 percent of total judicial election spending in 2008, compared to 43 percent in 2012, according to the study, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2012.”

The article also discusses spending and advertising in a Democratic primary contest for a 113th District Court seat in Texas. The political action Read more

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Upcoming Texas Supreme Court Primary in Spotlight

Around Texas, there is increasing news media interest in the upcoming March 4 Republican primary to choose nominees for the Texas Supreme Court. Three incumbent justices are on the ballot.

TX-Supreme-CourtA Southeast Texas Record article about the proliferation of signs promoting judicial candidates was headlined, “Judicial elections dominate campaign season.”

In a San Antonio Express News op-ed, former Chief Justice Tom Phillips commented on the fact that some Texas Democrats are working to support Republican  challengers, in order to oust Republican Supreme Court incumbents, in the GOP primary (see Gavel Grab). The essay was entitled, “Strange Players in GOP High Court Races.” Read more

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Article: Some TX Democrats Raising Money for GOP Candidates

With a contested Republican primary  for several Texas Supreme Court seats looming next month, a Texas newspaper reports that Democratic trial lawyers are raising campaign money in support of Republican challengers in hopes of unseating incumbent Republicans seeking re-election.

The Houston Chronicle article says this strategy is “steeped in the tragicomic history of Texas’s system of electing judges via partisan elections fueled by special-interest money from both ends of the political spectrum.”

To learn more about the primary and advertising that has begun, see Gavel Grab. The article quotes advocates  of judicial selection reform in Texas, but it notes, “efforts in the Texas Legislature to reform Texas’ easily manipulated system of judicial selection have been sabotaged for decades by both political parties.”

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