February 18, 2008
Endorsement watch: One for Criss

The Statesman becomes the first of the Big Five papers to endorse Judge Susan Criss for the Supreme Court in Place 8. They also join the crowd in endorsing Sam Houston for Place 7.

Democrats have a choice in two Supreme Court races that feature two good candidates in the Place 8 race and an easy pick in the Place 7 contest.

In the Place 7 race, Houston lawyer Sam Houston, 44, is an easy choice over opponent Baltasar D. Cruz of Dallas. Cruz's focus is on a narrow point of law, but he expounds on it at interminable length.

Houston has a broader view and a distinguished 20-year legal career behind him. Houston says the court's general direction in favoring deep-pocketed defendants motivated him to run. It's a common complaint, but Houston isn't content to complain, he's running.

Though he has no judicial experience, Houston has the intellect and experience to bring to the November contest. Democrats would do well to choose him.

Sam Houston, by the way, is the candidate's given name and not a gimmick. He claims no relation to the general who was the president of the Texas Republic and also served as governor and U.S. senator from the state of Texas.

The winner of this race will face Republican incumbent Dale Wainwright in the November general election. Wainwright, a six-year incumbent, is not touched by the ethical and legal questions surrounding three other members of the Supreme Court.

Democrats face a much tougher choice in the race for Place 8 on the Supreme Court, in which two well-qualified jurists are vying for the nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Phil Johnson in November. Like Wainwright, Johnson is not involved in his colleagues' troubles and is unopposed in the GOP primary.

He will face a challenge in November from either Linda Yanez, 59, an appeals court judge who lives in Edinburgh, or Susan Criss, a district judge in Galveston. Yanez ran unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court in 2002. Besides solid legal experience, Yanez has a compelling personal story to tell. She picked cotton as a teenager and was an elementary school teacher before turning to the law. Though that background isn't uncommon, it's certainly uncommon on Texas appeals courts.

Criss, whose father Lloyd Criss served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1970s and '80s, has presided over the 212th District Court in Galveston County since 1986.

Like Houston, both cited the Supreme Court's tilt toward business interests as their motive for running.

It's a tough call on the endorsement because either would make a credible Democratic nominee. Criss is an intense competitor and, unfortunately, judicial races are political competitions. Criss has the potential of drawing attention to a judicial race that is usually low key and low interest.

Given the Supreme Court's recent troubles, Texans need to pay attention to who sits on those nine chairs.

That's an interesting justification for choosing Criss over Yanez, but not too far from the DMN's observation about fundraising ability in the Place 7 race. On that race, note the comment from Baltasar Cruz regarding the now frequently-repeated point about his verbosity. Does it strike you as a good idea for a non-endorsed candidate to respond to an endorsement editorial in this fashion? I'd have to say no, it's not.

Meanwhile, Houston completes the sweep by getting the nod from the Star-Telegram, while Judge Yanez goes four-for-five.

Place 7

Houston lawyer Sam Houston claims no relation to the legendary Texas leader. However, he does say that he would bring balance to a court that seems to have swung too far in one direction.

"We need a trial lawyer back on to remind us about the jury system," he told the Editorial Board of the Star-Telegram.

Houston, 45, has spent 20 years as a civil litigator, mainly representing defendants such as insurance companies. But he said he also has represented plaintiffs and has support from lawyers on both sides of the docket. He is board-certified -- meaning specialized education and testing -- in personal injury law and trial advocacy.

Though he has no experience on the bench, the breadth of his work and demeanor seem suited for the state's highest civil court.

The primary winner faces incumbent Justice Dale Wainwright in November.

The other candidate, Baltasar Cruz, 42, of Dallas is almost frenetic in his advocacy for changing the court system. A previously unsuccessful candidate for a Dallas trial court seat, he has a slew of ideas for making the court system more efficient and less expensive to litigants. Some of them merit discussion. But he talks more about micromanaging the trial courts than deciding difficult legal issues, which is the Supreme Court's main responsibility.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board recommends Sam Houston in the Democratic primary for Texas Supreme Court Place 7.

Place 8

Justice Linda Yañez has been on the 13th Court of Appeals since 1993, deciding many of the kinds of cases that come before the Supreme Court. She has written more than 800 opinions for the appellate court, which is based in Corpus Christi and covers a 20-county area.

Yañez says that the current justices are too like-minded and that she would not only help foster more debate but, as a Latina, would add a voice that the court never has had. Yañez, 59, started her career as a legal aid lawyer, worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and has taught at the Harvard law school's immigration clinic and trial advocacy workshop.

The legal credentials of state District Judge Susan Criss of Galveston are more suited to the Court of Criminal Appeals than the Supreme Court's docket of business disputes, products liability, oil and gas cases, contracts, family law, medical malpractice and other civil matters.

Though her court hears criminal and civil matters, Criss, 46, is board-certified in criminal law, and her campaign materials tout her work as a prosecutor and "a tough advocate for stricter sanctions" against sex offenders.

In November, the primary winner will face Justice Phil Johnson, who was appointed in 2005 and will be running for his first six-year term.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board recommends Linda Yañez in the Democratic primary for Texas Supreme Court Place 8.

The S-T isn't the first board to note that Criss' experience is more on the criminal side. I'm hoping the Democrats will do well enough this year to ensure a full slate of nominees for the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2010 that are as well-qualified across the board as the Supreme nominees are this year. This year, we have Susan Strawn, who is a good and well-qualified candidate, and JR Molina, who for better or worse is probably in the strongest position to actually get elected, thanks to his repeated campaigns.

Elsewhere, in addition to the Chron's by-the-way mention, Railroad Commissioner candidate Art Hall picks up the endorsement of his hometown paper.

Hall, 36, a lawyer and investment banker, is a quick study and demonstrated during his tenure at City Hall that he is a team player.

He is focusing on clean, affordable energy as well as environmental concerns such as groundwater pollution spawned by oil and gas production. He also wants to nurture alternative energy programs.

Of the three Democrats seeking the post, Hall clearly is the best choice.

Hall got a mixed-blessing nod from the DMN, while Dale Henry got a more full-throated recommendation from the S-T, which also included some nice words for Hall. As far as I can tell, the Statesman has not yet weighed in on this race.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 18, 2008 to Election 2008