Non-partisan judicial elections are not the answer

With respect, I disagree.

Most of us are proud we voted, yet most of us abdicated our voting power when it came to electing judges. Our trial and appellate judges oversee our Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendment rights daily, but most Harris County voters simply hit a straight-party ballot and let someone else decide in judicial races.

Yes, the parties provide some good judicial candidates. But in trying to fill out the long ballot of judges, they have offered some real losers over the years, too. The ballot always contains some mediocre lawyers who like the looks of a county pension and some who will make actively bad judges. By not paying attention, Harris County voters have, at times, elected family law judges who refuse to show up in court, irreparably harming couples and children. They’ve elected criminal court judges who treat people of color differently. They’ve elected juvenile court judges who do harm to the most vulnerable of us, and they’ve elected appellate judges who simply are not up to the task.

It is heartbreaking for those who know which judges are good, or even great, only to see them swept out of office by blind party voting. We lost many great jurists this election. Maybe their replacements will be great, too, but at least some of them won’t.

Thanks to recent legislation, straight-party voting won’t be available when our judges are up for election in two years. But if we keep judges on a partisan ballot, people are still likely to use party as a voting crutch when they would likely do less harm by abstaining. Scholars who have studied judicial elections note that party affiliation is the primary factor in most people’s choices, followed by choosing a familiar sounding name. One Dallas judge believes he got a boost at the ballot box because his name sounds like a popular whiskey.

Friends say they voted straight party to send a message to the president or someone else in high office. But for years, straight-ticket voters have been sending powerful and uncaring messages to the unlucky litigants who wind up in front of one of the judges who is ill-equipped for the bench.

Author Mary Flood is a friend and a person of wisdom, but I do not agree with her proposal. I’ve addressed this a bunch of times, and my position hasn’t changed. Making judicial elections non-partisan removes information from voters, while incentivizing groups with a direct stake in the outcome of these elections, from plaintiffs’ lawyers to bail bondspeople to evildoers like Empower Texans to influence the vote, by which I mean “spend a lot more money than they do now to get judges they like elected”. You may say that it would be all right if the less-informed voters choose not to vote in these elections. I will say that encouraging people to not vote doesn’t sound like democracy to me.

If we must get rid of partisan elections, the only option that makes sense to me is an appointment system. If we’re going to go down that road, we’d damn well better engineer it in a way that doesn’t grant an excessive amount of power to any individuals or groups, does promote merit and diversity, and still allows for a way to oust someone who becomes a problem. I get that there are problems with the system we have. I’m sorry that some good judges will leave the bench, even as I voted against them. But until those who have been airing their complaints about this system come forward with a better one, I will continue to oppose any changes.

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6 Responses to Non-partisan judicial elections are not the answer

  1. Burt Levine says:

    But you like non- partisan city council elections, right?

  2. Manny Barrera says:

    Every time that Democrats start winning Judicial elections, someone starts talking about changing the way judges are selected.

    Let us try that appointment stuff first, we could start with the State Supreme Court and The Criminal Court of Appeals and appoint judges to those positions and see how it works. Maybe the Paxton prosecutors would get paid.

  3. Stephen says:

    I’m leaning toward the idea of an appointment system for the reason that there are simply too many judicial positions to keep track of.

    It gets worse when you consider that most people are not familiar with the courts themselves, the judges in power, and even the criteria on which to base a vote for a judicial position, much less how candidates would measure up by those criteria.

    And maybe appointments are the wrong answer, but I think it’s worth noting the problem I just laid out. Non-partisan elections wouldn’t solve that.

  4. Gary D says:

    I think the huge urban judicial systems need to be decentralized. Split judges up into a number of geographical areas and courthouses. Both because there are too many names on the ballot and because people in the suburbs hate having to go into central Houston for many things legally related. Perhaps if Houston had a well-run well-publicized transit system with parking at remote locations it might be less of an issue.

  5. mollusk says:

    All of the systems have their problems. We’ve had some real bozos appointed over the years, just as we’ve had some real bozos elected, via sweeps or otherwise. Years ago we had a guy whose main qualification was apparently having a luxurious helmet of snow white hair and the ability to don a thoughtful facial expression at will (popular speculation had it that it was something he developed as a way to mask utter and total confusion).

    Over my several decades of practicing courthouse law, the governor who did best with appointments (at least to the trial court benches) was Bush. He didn’t seem particularly interested by the judiciary, so good MBA that he was he delegated the job to local panels of practitioners who made recommendations, which he then followed. As a rule, his trial judge appointments were qualified and non partisan – and we retained the right to keep or ditch them at the next election.

    Mollusk’s Perfect World would carry that forward, with the panels having representatives from all significant political parties.

  6. Joshua ben Bullard says:

    FYI – The people first judge whom judges them before a person can judge the people .So the appointment system for judges is forever a Non starter- forget about it.

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