Gavel Grab

Mixed Views on Elevation of Hecht to Texas Chief Justice

Blogging in the New Yorker, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin offers his views about the significance of the elevation of Nathan Hecht to become chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

The rise of Justice Hecht (photo), who first won election to the court in a campaign managed by Karl Rove, reflects “the transformation of state supreme courts into engines of conservative change,” Toobin writes. Justice Hecht was named to the top judge’s post by Gov. Rick Perry following the resignation of Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who Toobin labels “a relative moderate by Texas standards.”

Justice Hecht surfaced in national news reports in 2005 when he commented favorably about President George W. Bush’s nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers for the U.S. Supreme Court. Miers ultimately withdrew her candidacy.

A Houston Chronicle article said Justice Hecht is the longest serving judge on the court. It said he currently is battling a $29,000 fine, imposed by the Texas Ethics Commission in 2008, for “accepting and failing to report an illegal political contribution from a law firm.” A Star-Telegram editorial headline declared, “Hecht is not everybody’s pick.”

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Chief Justice Jefferson, Reform Advocate in Texas, to Resign

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson will resign at the end of September, it was announced on Tuesday, according to the Texas Tribune. He was the first African-American chief justice of the court, and he advocated vigorously for reform of partisan judicial elections in Texas.

The Texas Tribune quoted Justice Jefferson as saying about judicial election reform:

“We’ve been trying for several decades to move toward a merit selection system. In Houston, you see five or six pages of judges who voters are electing. The vote is often based on party affiliation, which is not a good indication of judicial talent, or on the person’s name… or on how much money they have been able to raise. None of those have any effect on whether someone will be a good judge or not.”

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Impact of Sequestration Felt in Public Defender’s Office

Across the nation, every branch of government is feeling the impact of the automatic, across-the-board government spending cuts known as sequestration. However, the judicial system is being hit particularly hard.

In an interview for the Texas Public Radio program The Source, federal public defender Maureen Franco describes how budget cuts are impacting Texas’s western district. The picture that she paints is a dismal one. In February, the public defender’s office faced a 9% budget cut, which Franco said the court was able to sustain because it had been so scrupulously conservative in its spending.

However, in March the office was notified that it would have to cut its spending by an additional 14% for the next fiscal year to comply with sequestration. The result is a sobering combination of layoffs for 33% of the office’s public defenders, extended case delays, nineteen furlough days, and a 10% salary reduction for all staff.

In the meantime, the number of cases coming before the public defender’s office is actually on the rise. The public defender’s office for the Western District of Texas is projected to represent 13,000 indigent individuals this year which is already above the number of cases provided for by the court’s budget.  Read more

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Texas Bill Would End Straight Ticket Voting for Judicial Races

The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee approved a bill on May 3 that would “end straight ticket voting for the state’s judicial offices,” states Gavel to Gavel.

Straight ticket ballots allow voters to select all candidates belonging to a political party, including judges. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has argued for ending the practice in recent years, the blog says.

Some argue that it has caused Texas counties to clear their bench entirely of one political party or another.

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Texas Judicial Elections Have Serious Drawbacks, Says Justice

Texas “has one of the worst systems” for electing state judges, says former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips. State judicial elections routinely rake in thousands of dollars, mostly in contributions from law firms, states a Texas Tribune article.

Twenty-two states including Texas hold judicial elections. Phillips says his law firm has donated “tens of thousands of dollars” to state supreme court races. Large sums of campaign contributions have led to proposals for changing Texas’s system of judicial selection.

Rep. Richard Pena Raymond filed a bill last month mandating recusal of judges in cases where they received $2,500 or more from someone who appears before them in court. “The public wants to hold the judiciary in higher esteem than other parts of the government,” he said.

While some have argued in favor of switching to merit selection, Supreme Court Justice Don Willett argues that Texas voters want to choose their judges. “They want a voice, even as they say that judicial fundraising raises appearance concerns.” Read more

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Commentary: Top Texas Judge Candidly Tackles ‘Unequal Justice’

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, Texas Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson has spoken out “with great clarity and candor about the desperate legal conditions of his fellow Texans” who are indigent, a legal journalist writes.

Justice Jefferson eloquently addressed “the immediate need to secure for them all the right to ‘liberty and justice,’” Andrew Cohen reports at The Atlantic online. The judge made his remarks in an annual state of the judiciary address. He spotlighted the difference between access to justice for the rich and for the poor:

“For those who can afford legal services, we have a top-notch judicial system. Highly qualified lawyers help courts dispense justice fairly and efficiently. But that kind of representation is expensive. A larger swath of litigation exists in which the contestants lack wealth, insurance is absent, and public funding is not available. Some of our most essential rights – those involving families, homes, and livelihoods – are the least protected. Veterans languish for months before their disability, pension, and educational benefits arrive. Read more

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Commentary: Can Elected Texas Judges Ignore Politics?

Unlike their counterparts on the federal bench, Texas judges go before the voters in elections. Candidates avoid political subjects, a Texas Tribune article notes, but it also asks, can they run without considering what voters may think of their decisions?

The Texas Supreme Court in the coming months may hear an appeal of a decision by a state district judge that, according to the article, Texas’s “financing of public schools was unconstitutionally inequitable and inadequate.”

The case comes as three of the Supreme Court’s nine justices will be up for election in 2014. Former Justice Dale Wainwright says the justices have to ignore the politics around a case. Read more

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Texas Justice Calls Using Twitter a ‘Byproduct’ of Electing Judges

Twitter is mainly a political communications medium and a way to stay connected to the public, says Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Willett. Texas Lawyer calls Willett an avid user of Twitter with more than 1,300 followers.

Over Twitter messages with a Texas Lawyer reporter, Willett says the key for him is to follow interesting people online. He also said that using Twitter was a “byproduct of elected judges.”

According to the blog, Willett frequently posts political commentary, items of note from his personal life, photos and comments about sports.

Willett says he started using the social media website about three years ago when he was up for reelection. Voters are seeking more political information online, he noted.

The justice said he would never post any thoughts or opinions on pending cases, and utilizes common sense and self-censorship.

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Opinion: Texas’ Judicial Elections Need Improvement

Texas judges are selected through partisan elections, and voters are allowed to utilize straight-ticket voting for judicial candidates. This leaves candidates vulnerable to the “whims of politics,” argues a Houston Chronicle opinion. by Dennis Courtland Hayes and Martha Hill Jamison.

Judicial candidates in Texas are either swept up by political parties, or crushed by them, the opinion says. In 2008, 19 incumbent judges aligned with the same political party were defeated in the election. The 2012 election saw 11 of 12 judicial candidates of the same party win.

Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips’ has argued that straight-ticket voting along party lines caused more than 100 district judges to lose an election. Read more

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Texas Governor Picks His Chief of Staff for Supreme Court

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has named his chief of staff, Jeffrey S. Boyd, to fill an opening on the state Supreme Court. The nominee must be confirmed by the state Senate, according to an Austin American-Statesman article.

When a seat becomes vacant on the Texas Supreme Court before a justice’s term is complete, the governor appoints a new justice subject to Senate approval. Judicial nominating commissions, used by many states to screen candidates for a governor’s appointment, are not part of the Texas judicial selection system.

Boyd (photo), who also has served as Perry’s general counsel, would face election in 2014 if he seeks a full term on the court. Including Boyd, Perry has appointed seven of the court’s nine justices.

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