Gavel Grab

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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Advertising Begins in Texas Supreme Court Primary

Texas flagWhen 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.

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Editorial Advocates Switch to Merit Selection in Texas

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.

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Texas to Examine Possible Reform of Judicial Selection

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.

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