February 11, 2009
If you're going to reform it, reform it right

I agree with State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson that the way we elect judges in Texas needs reform. I just don't think he's proposing a real fix for the problem he's identified.

Texas remains one of only seven states with partisan judicial elections. It requires judicial candidates to raise vast amounts of money, which leaves a skeptical public assuming that money influences the outcome, Jefferson said.

"The status quo is broken," he warned.

He has issued the same warning to previous Legislatures. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has tried several times to convert the state's partisan judicial elections to merit-based judicial appointments followed by retention elections. But that plan has never passed.

"Sadly, we have now become accustomed to judicial races in which the primary determinants of victory are not the flaws of the incumbent or qualities of the challenger, but political affiliation and money," Jefferson said. "In 1994, 2006 and again in 2008, district judges lost elections due to partisan sweeps in the urban counties."

Jefferson acknowledged that his own re-election in November might just as well have been tied to Republican John McCain's success in Texas as to any stellar credentials that his candidacy offered.

"And this is the point. Justice must be blind - it must be as blind to party affiliation as to the litigant's social or financial status," he said. "The rule of law resonates across party lines."

Jefferson endorses a merit system as "the best remedy." A merit system would allow the governor to appoint judges, who later would face voters in a keep-or-remove election.

"The state of our judiciary will be made stronger if we appoint our judges based on merit and hold them accountable in retention elections," he said.

The Observer also reported on this; the Chron has more here and here. First and foremost, I'm sorry, but I can't help but be suspicious at the motives of a Republican to propose such a scheme right after the Democrats began winning judicial elections in the two biggest counties. Yeah, he mentioned the sweep of 1994, too, but I don't remember anyone calling for this reform then, or any other time in the 90s when the Republicans were taking over the state judiciary. Forgive my cynicism, but this sounds far too much like the newfound alarm over the evils of straight-ticket voting, which somehow managed to not corrupt the body politic when it favored the other team.

The main objection to what Justice Jefferson proposes is that it doesn't seem to fit the problem. If we're concerned about the effects, real and perceived, of big donors to judges and judicial candidates, how exactly does removing party labels help? Are you telling me that Texans for Lawsuit Reform would sit on the sidelines in those nice little non-partisan retention elections? Cause if you are, I'm not buying it. If the problem is too much money coming from too few donors, most of whom have business before the court, why not impose stricter limits on who can give to judicial candidates, and how much they can give? You can balance that out by creating a public campaign funding system for these races, available to candidates matching funds with some multiplier effect for small-dollar donations. That actually addresses the issue, in a way that Justice Jefferson's proposal does not.

Finally, I guess I just don't see the allure of gubernatorial appointments instead of elections. I mean, does anyone think Rick Perry is going to make these decisions based on merit, and not politics? Not me. I say if finances are the problem, then reforming the finances has to be the solution. Anything else strikes me as missing the point. Let's start with Sen. Kirk Watson's bill, which would require that "in an order granting, refusing, dismissing, or denying a petition for review, the supreme court shall state how each member voted on the petition or application", and go from there.

UPDATE: What Burka said. I couldn't agree with him more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 11, 2009 to Show Business for Ugly People
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