Saturday, July 27, 2013

Reviewing How We Select Judges

I had a moment to sit down with a cup of coffee and read the print edition of the Houston Chronicle this morning when I came across this editorial, supporting Rep. Justin Rodriguez's bill that would change how Texas selects judges.

I usually get my information on criminal law-related Senate and House bills from Grits, so I was surprised I hadn't heard about this one.  If Grits wrote about it, I totally missed it.

Those of us who practice criminal law know that partisan politics have no place in the judiciary.  In addition to opening the doors to the influence of party hacks who have no understanding of how the criminal justice system works (i.e. Terry Lowry & Jared Woodfill), partisan elections for judges contradict the ideals of Separation of Powers.

What good is a judge if he or she is more loyal to following party lines rather than interpreting the laws of Texas and the United States?

I've said before that I don't believe that we will ever see our judges selected in non-partisan elections.  The Republican and Democratic parties are machines that rely on all candidates to help raise money for their respective parties.  They will never voluntarily agree to just waive the earning potential of all the judges who are running on any particular election slate.

Rep. Rodriguez's bill becoming law may be doubtful in my pessimistic opinion, but I hope Scott Henson over at Grits will chime in with a more educated analysis than I have.

Either way, the idea of steering judges away from partisan politics has my full support, as well as the support of most prosecutors and defense attorneys I know.


Lee said...

What good are laws if they don't help people?

Anonymous said...

The Constitution of the State of Texas requires that judges are elected by the people of Texas.

It would take a constitutional amendment to change that. If Texans amended the constitutional to allow for the governor to appoint judges, consider what kind of judges Texas would have if Kinky Friedman had been elected governor 8 years ago.

As long as judges run for election on the same ballot as other elected officials, the two political parties will certainly promote "their" judges for election even if there is no D or R beside their name.

I'll bet the major newspapers in the other 4 major urban counties, Dallas, Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar, are not writing editorials in favor of non-partisan election of judges. Their judges are almost all Democrats.

There is a very simple solution.

What every citizen should want is for only highly qualified candidates run for judge. In Harris County, we have District and County Courts designated for Civil, Criminal, Family, Juvenile,and Probate. The Texas Board of Legal Specialization offers specialization in each of those fields. Change the eligibility requirements to require the candidates to be Board Certified in the designated field of the court. Hard to complain about any candidate who is Board Certified in the field of the court he is running for.

Years ago, all a person had to do was write a check to the political party to get his name on the ballot. In order to keep that person off the ballot, now a candidate has to obtain signatures on a petition. That has proven to be no obstacle to the unqualified candidate, even one running for the Supreme Court of Texas or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Anonymous said...

Board Certified Lawyers, especially in the non criminal field would have to take too much of a pay cut to be a judge.

Anonymous said...

That's a legitimate point. What if there weren't enough Board Certified Civil lawyers interested to fill the ballot?

I'll bet if Harris County raised the supplement for its District and CCCL judges, there would be enough Board Certified lawyers, even on the civil side, to file to run.

Texas lags way behind the other states in judicial compensation. Requiring Board Certification in the 5 large counties should be sufficient justification for a salary increase.

Anonymous said...

The bigger problem is that judges are just DAs with a robe on.

Texas amends the constitution as often as Perry changes opinions on states rights. The fact that it takes an amendment isn't the obstacle to non-partisan elections. When Texas turns blue Republicans will want non-partisan elections and Democrats won't.


Anonymous said...

I've met plenty of board certified lawyers who don't know a damn thing about anything. Surely you all have too.

Anonymous said...

Texas is one of the few remaining states that elect all levels of judges. Many states still elect the local JPs or even Supreme Court justices, but not the trial courts. Some states the governor appoints with consent of the legislature, like when we have a vacancy. But the biggest trend if you want to call it that is for appointment and retention elections of judges. In this system, the governor appoints a judge, and then at the next election, that judge is alone on the ballot. You vote to keep that judge or not. If kept, then some states allow for a set term, or retention elections every so many years. If not, the bench is declared vacant and a new judge is appointed or there is a traditional election, etc. There are ton of ways to customize this type of system. But, in Texas, going back to the roots of Reconstruction, the Texas Constitution of 1876 was designed to give the electorate more control than is seen in most states. You see this reaction throughout all levels of our state and local government.

Anonymous said...

I think judges should be selected by mortal combat. Then at least we would know who REALLY wants to serve.