November 07, 2006
Who needs the CCA?

Via Grits, a rather provocative Statesman editorial that calls for the elimination (via de-funding, if necessary) of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Texas is operating under an antiquated system that establishes two courts to handle appeals. The State Supreme Court deals with civil matters and the Court of Criminal Appeals handles criminal appeals. It would take a state constitutional amendment to replace the two courts with one supreme court for civil and criminal appeals. The Legislature, however, does have the power to yank the criminal court's budget. It should use that authority to force the court to do its job or put it out of business.

Generally, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court is widely respected. But the Court of Criminal Appeals - also composed of nine elected GOP judges - has embarrassed the state with a series of bad rulings, many of them regarding the death penalty. Recently, the conservative leaning U.S. Supreme Court signaled its frustration with Texas' criminal appeals court when it agreed to hear three Texas death penalty cases in its next term.

By now, many Texans know about some of the rulings that made national news, including the infamous sleeping lawyer case. In that case, the criminal appeals court judges saw nothing wrong with a defense lawyer who slept through key portions of his client's capital murder trial.

The same court said OK to prosecutors who hid evidence from defense lawyers in several capital murder cases involving indigent defendants.

And it gave thumbs up to racial gerrymandering of a jury by Dallas prosecutors years ago in another capital murder case.

This week, we learned about more disturbing practices that probably are costing people their lives. For years, the court has permitted lawyers to submit sloppy, erroneous and inferior work in death penalty appeals. In a system in which almost anything passes as a writ of habeas corpus to appeal a death sentence, it is very possible that innocent people have been - and will be - put to death.

No question, the CCA is awful. As a Grits commenter puts it, though, why is it so much worse than the Supreme Court? Would the Supremes necessarily be better if they heard these cases? It's hard to imagine how they could be worse, but it's not like the Supremes are a bunch of advocates for the underdog. So while I agree with the sentiment, I'm not sure I'm ready to buy the prescription.

Grits has argued before that the right answer is to elect better judges. I won't dispute that, but the way I see it, we're not going to have competitive elections for a bottom-rung state race like this until the top tier is truly competitive. It's nice to believe that a real judge could have beaten Sharon Keller this go round, but I just don't see how that could have happened in an environment where the Democratic candidates for Governor and Senator had to beg for table scraps. I'll change my mind if Bill Moody knocks off - or even comes close to knocking off - Don Willet, but beyond that it's (sadly) a little too wishful for me. I'll say this, though - I think Burka has a point when he says that holding the primaries in August instead of March would generally make for a more competitive landscape overall. Maybe with a little more time to see what the national and statewide picture looked like we'd have gotten more than one non-perennial, non-Libertarian challenger to these jokers. Alas, we'll never know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 07, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

You need smart but inexperienced candidates like Barbara Radnofsky jumping into races like these, instead of races that she can't win.

Posted by: kevin whited on November 7, 2006 10:32 AM

It's hard to elect different judges when many are running unopposed!

Posted by: texans_fan on November 7, 2006 10:36 AM

Is Barbara Radnofsky a lawyer?

Hell, Kevin's right, if so I bet she could have whipped Sharon Keller, but obviously doesn't stand a chance vs. KBH. It wouldn't be a shoo in, by any stretch, but if it could have happened in any cycle it might have been this one. Or the next?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast on November 7, 2006 11:54 AM

Kevin's suggestion has merit. It would have been an easier sell for Radnofsky if she hadn't been the only person willing to challenge Hutchison, of course. But that gets back to my initial point about the powers that be and their low opinion of the voters this year.

So, Kevin, in a Radnofsky versus Sharon Keller matchup, who would you vote for?

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on November 7, 2006 12:14 PM

Alternatively, we could ask whether electing any of our appellate judges best serves the public interest.

Posted by: Jeb on November 8, 2006 11:49 AM

"Alternatively, we could ask whether electing any of our appellate judges best serves the public interest."

Yeah, because we all know that having Priscilla Owen appointed to the Fifth Circuit for LIFE is a good idea. No thanks. I prefer a system where if 51% agree we can throw the bums out.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast on November 11, 2006 8:58 AM