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).
As 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
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.
A 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
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.”
When Texas voters cast ballots in the March 4 Republican primary for state Supreme Court candidates, they will face contested races for three seats and an uncontested race for the fourth. Some TV and online advertising has surfaced in the GOP primary.
The choices facing voters are described in a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal article that is headlined, “State judiciary candidates gear up for March 4 primary.” The article notes that three Democrats are each running unopposed for the high court in the Democratic primary March 4.
A TV ad by Justice Jeff Brown, a candidate in the Republican primary, features the incumbent describing himself as a conservative Republican whose beliefs include “the rule of law, American exceptionalism and traditional Texas values.”
Voter information groups “Texans for Justice” and “Hecht, No!” have released an online video ad criticizing Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a candidate on the Republican primary ballot, and supporting his challenger, Richard Talton, as well as two other challengers to Republican incumbents.
Texas needs to reform the way it picks judges, says a San Antonio Express-News editorial, reiterating its support for merit selection as the preferred alternative.
The editorial says straight-ticket voting too often is the dominant factor in judicial elections, and moreover, “Judges have to solicit political contributions, which is a disturbing practice for justice system umpires who are supposed to make objective rulings.”
“Politics can’t be completely eliminated, but a merit selection system minimizes political considerations and keeps unqualified candidates off the bench,” the editorial states.
It discusses a merit selection system that would combine gubernatorial appointment of qualified judges, the screening of candidates by a bipartisan commission that includes legal experts and retention (up-or-down) elections if a judge desires to stay on the bench.
The issue may come before the legislature thanks to a study committee established by legislation introduced by state Rep. Justin Rodriguez of San Antonio, the editorial adds. To learn more about the legislator’s concerns, see this earlier Gavel Grab post.
State Rep. Justin Rodriguez of Texas has been struck by the enormous impact on judicial elections in Bexar County of shifting political winds.
In the past three election cycles, Rodriguez writes in the San Antonio Express-News, Democrats swept judicial elections in 2008, Republicans in 2010, and Democrats again in 2012. As the Express-News editorial board put it, he says, judicial races have become a “roll of the dice with the outcome dictated by winners at the top of the ballot.”
Rodriguez wonders aloud whether there isn’t a better way to pick and retain qualified and impartial judges, and he explains that his concerns led him to submit legislation approved this year to establish in 2014 an interim study of judicial selection in Texas.
“It is my hope that this effort sparks an open and honest dialogue about the judicial election process and reinforces the importance of retaining the very best jurists on the bench,” he writes.
“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