Gavel Grab

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Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Judicial Vacancy Edition

There are currently 10 federal judgeships in Texas that have been vacant for an average of nearly two years resulting in a backlog of more than 12,000 cases.  A report by the Center for American Progress notes that 17 vacancies had been filled at this point during Republican President George W. Bush’s second term, in contrast with the six judges that have been appointed to U.S. District Court vacancies in Texas under President Obama.

Phillip Martin of the Austin-based Progress Texas stated that “Senators Cornyn and Cruz have allowed politics to cloud important needs to have judges to fill our federal courts.”  The Associated Press reports that upcoming retirements could lead to as many as 13 Texas-based federal judgeships vacancies by March 2015.

Senators Cornyn and Cruz have stated that Obama hasn’t nominated candidates to fill these vacancies quickly enough. This is despite the fact that the White House does not push nominees without support from home-state senators and waits for their suggestions, as mandated by Senate tradition.

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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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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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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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Federal Judge to Hear Challenge to Texas Marriage Law

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of Texas was to hear arguments on Wednesday challenging the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Two couples challenging the ban are relying on the same legal argument that has led to court injunctions against similar bans in two other conservative states, Utah and Oklahoma.

The couples maintain a ban on marriage for same-sex couples violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, according to an Associated Press article.

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and a Republican, was prepared to defend the state’s ban, which is contained in a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. In two other states, Nevada and Virginia, the attorneys general have chosen not to defend such a state ban.

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Unopposed Texas Judge Reports Big Law Firm Contributions

Judge Donald Floyd, seeking reelection unopposed to the 172nd District Court in Beaumont, Texas, has received a total of $45,000 in campaign contributions from two local law firms, according to a Legal Newsline article.

“Every year, Floyd presides over civil lawsuits brought” by the two law firms, the article said. The firms’ founders are known for their representation in asbestos mass torts, it said.

Legal Newsline, an online newswire,  is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.

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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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Editorial: Reason to Reform Judicial Elections in Texas

“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

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Judicial Election Reform Talk Heats up in Texas

David Lyle, left; Bert Brandenburg, right

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.

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