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Time again to talk judicial elections

Here we go again, like it or not.

In the wake of a midterm election that swept some 20 Republican appellate judges out of office, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called on the Texas Legislature to reform a system he called “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

“When partisan politics is the driving force and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” Hecht told both chambers of the Legislature on Wednesday morning in his biennial address, a wide-ranging speech that touched on judicial salaries, technology and bail reform. “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

In recent history, partisan judicial elections have played well for Texas’ majority party; the state’s two high courts, in which justices run statewide, comprise all Republicans, as they have for two decades. But last year, as turnout surged in urban areas and voters leaned heavily toward the straight-ticket voting option, Democratic judges were swept onto the bench on the coattails of candidates like Beto O’Rourke. All told, Hecht said, in the last election, Texas’ district and appellate courts “lost seven centuries of judicial experience at a single stroke.”

“Qualifications did not drive their election,” Hecht said. “Partisan politics did.”

It wasn’t a new criticism, nor was it the first time Hecht has made such a call. Justices on Texas’ two high courts have been among the most vocal critics of a system that requires justices to run as partisan figures but rule as impartial arbiters, and the state has been challenged in court over the practice. But the call took on new significance after a shattering judicial election for Texas Republicans, who lost control of four major state appeals courts based in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Judges and lawyers who practice before those courts have fretted not just about the startling shift in judicial philosophy, but also the abrupt loss of judicial experience.

Hecht called on lawmakers to consider shifting to a system of merit selection and retention elections — or to at least pass legislative proposals that would increase the qualification requirements for judicial candidates.

You know how I feel about this, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t doubt that Justice Hecht is sincere But:

1. Republicans have had complete control of Texas government since 2003. That’s eight regular sessions, and however many special sessions, in which they could have addressed this but chose not to.

2. Hecht and former Justice Wallace Jefferson have spoken about this before, but if anyone was talking about it before 2008, when Democrats first started winning judicial races in Harris County, I’m not aware of it.

3. The judges who were voted out may well have been experienced, but that doesn’t mean they’d make better judges than the candidates who replaced them. And the main consideration people had was voting for change. Maybe as part of the party in power, Hecht should given that a little more consideration.

Anyway. Until someone proposes an actual system to replace the one we have, one that takes into account the inherent politics of the process and deals with it in a way that truly enables merit and produces a judiciary that reflects the population it judges, it’s all just noise to me.

(Justice Hecht also had some loud and laudable words in favor of bail reform, which I appreciate. Go read the rest of the story for that.)

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  1. mollusk says:

    Fun fact: Justice Hecht was a beneficiary of the R sweep of the Dallas benches in 1982 (he’d been appointed a year earlier by Clements).

  2. asmith says:

    If politics are taken out Justice Hecht, than the power goes to the big law firms in dallas, houston, austin, and san antonio

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    Asmith…. you are correct.

  4. SocraticGadfly says:

    From my blog, what’s in this week’s roundup. Hecht did at least briefly mention retention elections.

    To Asmith and Kubosh, no, not necessarily at all.

    Please read. I grew up in New Mexico, so I know how alternative systems can work, and can work better:

  5. Mainstream says:

    I do recall extensive discussion of alternate systems as far back as when Chief Justice tom Phillips served in office (1988-2004), and in the mid 1990s when there were hearings held by Rodney Ellis held at city hall and in which GOP chair Gary Polland participated. There is a huge divide about elections between citizens in small counties where everyone knows the judge and large urban counties with 60 judges on the ballot, which has been one of the roadblocks to reform.

  6. Joel says:

    Random selection.

    You’re welcome.