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Politics Fuels ‘Growing Judicial Vacancy Crisis’ in Texas: Opinion

empty-bench1With another federal judge announcing his retirement and the state’s two Republican senators playing politics with a Democratic president, Texas “has become the epicenter of a growing judicial vacancy crisis,” a Fort Worth Star-Telegram op-ed says.

Natalie Knight of the Alliance for Justice wrote the op-ed, which is headlined, “Texas judicial vacancy flood means [Sens.] Cornyn, Cruz must act.” There are nine vacant federal judgeships in the state, and three of them have been unoccupied for more than three years. Seven have been formally deemed “judicial emergencies.”

“[John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz have a choice: Let the Texas vacancy crisis grow even worse, or start looking for the judges Texans desperately need,” Knight contends.

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On Politics and On Courts, Texas Judge Finds Twitter Useful

Willett3The Texas Tweeter Laureate is … a judge. Yes, you read that correctly. And in an intriguing Washington Times op-ed, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett shows flashes of the humor and succinctness that are part of his social media effort to demystify our courts:

  • “People know far more about American Idol judges than judges.”
  • “I’m probably the most avid social-media judge in America—which is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz. It’s a bar so low it’s subterranean. But apparently I’m part of the Twitterati (think Illuminati, but with gavels).”
  • “People are genuinely amazed that a nerdy judge can be engaging, and believe me, my geekery is on an uber-elite level. But it’s rare for a Supreme Court Justice to step out from behind the bench and demystify things.”
  • “If you’re a Texas Supreme Court Justice hopscotching across 254 counties, trying to tattoo your name onto the noggins of millions of voters, you must find creative ways to raise visibility and build awareness. Twitter, Facebook, etc. are low-cost but high-yield ways to leverage the support of key influencers and opinion leaders. Bottom line: It’s political malpractice not to engage people smartly via social media.”
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Campaign Finance Disclosure Legislation Dies in Texas Legislature

iStock_000015670171Small1-1Legislation to require politically active nonprofit groups to disclose their donors was declared dead in the Texas legislature, The Texas Tribune reported.

“The Legislature gets a ‘F’ on ethics reform this session. The bills they passed largely protect the politicians and limit disclosure of information,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

The Texas Tribune subsequently reported in a different article about Gov. Greg Abbott’s news conference following the conclusion of the legislative session, “Abbott Opposes Curbs on Dark Money.” Read more

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Senate Unanimously Confirms Federal Judge for Texas

Judge Bennett

Judge Bennett

Alfred Bennett, presiding judge for the 61st Civil District Court of Texas, was confirmed 95-0 by the U.S. Senate on Monday for a federal district court judgeship. It was the first judicial confirmation vote taken by the Senate this year.

A San Antonio Express-News report said Texas has 11 judicial vacancies, more than any other state, and confirmation votes on two other judicial nominees for the federal judiciary in Texas remain in limbo.

“Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, need to oil the judicial confirmation machinery they’ve allowed to rust over since they’ve taken control, and get the gears of justice moving efficiently again,” said Judith Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. Read more

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Former Texas Chief Justice a Potential U.S. Supreme Court Pick?

Jefferson_Justice_Wallace_2008_Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who has advocated for merit selection as a means to preserve fair and impartial courts (see Gavel Grab), is touted in a Houston Chronicle column as a potential pick for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rick Casey describes Jefferson as an individual of stature who made it his practice to follow the rule of law, who was initially appointed by a Republican governor, and who could pass muster with a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate if President Obama is faced with filling a high court vacancy.

“Republicans could easily do worse than Jefferson, who often ruled for insurance companies and big businesses over plaintiffs,” Casey writes. “But he has also shown considerable concern for the little guy.”

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Changing Election of Texas Judges Gets Frosty Reception From Panel

For years, reformers have talked about removing Texas judges from a straight-ticket party voting process (see Gavel Grab). This week, a bill to do exactly that got a frosty reception in a Texas House Committee, according to the Texas Tribune.

From both parties, critics said that tampering with the ballot could confuse voters and dampen turnout. “I think we should be encouraging people to vote, not discouraging people to vote,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican.

Among reformers who have voiced support for the bill is former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, mentioning the problems he sees with partisan judicial elections: “One of the big problems is that it really confuses the public into thinking there is a material difference in a judge who is a Republican and a judge who is a Democrat,” Jefferson said. “The second, it removes judges from office, not based on how diligent they are, they’re removed just because they’re in the wrong political party.”

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Alabama Chief Justice Moore to Headline Rally in Texas

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was to headline a rally organized by the Conservative Republicans of Texas Monday afternoon, taking a stand against marriage for same-sex couples. Moore made headlines last month when he ordered Alabama probate judges to ignore a federal court ruling that declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The Associated Press reports that the rally was one of several related events taking place in Texas’s capital on Monday. The Coalition of African American Pastors, another anti-marriage equality group, will hold a news conference, while Equality Texas will lobby lawmakers to support equal rights.

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Texas Bill Would Defy a Supreme Court Ruling for Marriage Equality

Texas State FlagHow many ways can legislators craft to punish judges for handling cases involving marriage for same-sex couples — or defy a Supreme Court ruling, if it occurs, that strikes down bans on these marriages?

In Texas, a recently filed bill would amend existing state law declaring that a marriage exists solely between one man and one woman by adding: “regardless of whether a federal court ruling or other federal law provides that a prohibition against the creation or recognition of a same-sex marriage or a civil union is not permitted under the United States Constitution.”

This legislation was reported by Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization. Read more

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Texas and Iowa Face New Marriage Equality Conflicts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is attempting to void the marriage of two women who wed on Thursday after the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses.

KWTX reports that the order did not invalidate the wedding but Paxton said he is looking for other ways to nullify the marriage license. The license was issued under a one-time court order for medical reasons because one of the women has cancer.

“The Texas Supreme Court has stayed two lower court rulings that declared the Texas marriage ban unconstitutional. It is appalling that our elected officials would expend so much legal fire power to stop loving couples from marrying, but this really seems like the last gasp of marriage opponents,” said Rebecca L. Robertson, the legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a proposal has been introduced to amend the Iowa constitution by defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. According to the Sioux City Journal, if adopted, it would nullify a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

The ballot initiative must be passed in two consecutive General Assemblies before it could appear on the 2017 ballot.

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In Texas, Another Court-Stripping Bill to Punish Judges

Texas State FlagA bill introduced in the Texas legislature closely mirrors one introduced in South Carolina earlier (see Gavel Grab) with an intent to punish state judges for handling cases involving marriage for same-sex couples.

The Texas bill provides, according to Gavel to Gavel, “A state or local governmental employee officially may not recognize, grant, or enforce a same-sex marriage license. If an employee violates this subsection, the employee may not continue to receive a salary, pension, or other employee benefit at the expense of the taxpayers of this State.”

After the South Carolina legislation was proposed, Justice at Stake Director of State Affairs Debra Erenberg criticized it as “a brazen political attack on the independence of the judicial branch.” Read more

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