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First Court of Appeals

Paxton (again) wants another judge on his case

Round and round they go.

Best mugshot ever

Defense attorneys for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose indictment for felony securities fraud is now more than five years old — are again asking for a different judge to oversee the case. It’s the latest turn in a long-delayed prosecution that has bounced all the way from a trial court in North Texas to the state Supreme Court in Austin, and now sits in legal purgatory in Houston.

Paxton’s attorneys wrote Thursday that Judge Jason Luong should recuse himself from the case because the attorney general’s office is representing him — among a group of about 20 Harris County district court judges — in an unrelated lawsuit over bail practices. Robert Johnson, who oversaw the case until recently, voluntarily recused himself from the case for that reason earlier this summer. A Houston appeals court reassigned the case to Luong late last month.

“Judge Luong’s impartiality might be reasonably questioned” because Paxton is defending him, Paxton’s attorneys argued in a filing this week.

[…]

The prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial shot back Friday, arguing that Luong should remain on the case.

“Because Paxton’s palpable fear that Judge Luong will follow the law and keep these felony cases in Harris County does not come within a time zone of meeting the Draconian burden required for recusal, his motion is without merit and should be denied,” prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer wrote.

And they noted that last month, Paxton’s attorney Philip Hilder told the Houston Chronicle that Johnson “did not need to recuse himself on the matter since … the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity.”

See here for the previous update. I don’t think the Paxton argument about a potential conflict of interest due to the bail lawsuit is completely without merit, but I do agree that it’s a thin reed. I mean, the AG’s office is basically defending the office of Criminal District Court Judge in this lawsuit, and Jason Luong just happens to be in that category. It’s Jason Luong in his official capacity, not Jason Luong, person of Texas. It’s true that Judge Robert Johnson agreed to recuse himself on those grounds, but that doesn’t mean other judges would agree with that position. It’s also true that the question could be made moot, either by Judge Luong making like Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren and filing a motion in agreement with the plaintiffs, or by the presiding judge in the bail case granting the motion to dismiss that was recently filed. Of course, a ruling on that motion could take months, and we needn’t wait that long. The point is, though, that there are other ways to resolve this conflict, if one agrees that there is a conflict.

And I too would point out that Team Paxton was just the other day talking about how their guy is ready for his day in court and that the prosecutors should quit fighting the effort to move the case back to Collin County so we can get this show on the road already. Funny how one’s perspective can change on that. It’s been pretty much entirely the work of Team Paxton and his political supporters that have caused this case to drag on for now more than five years. The DMN, in its reporting on this latest action, provides a handy timeline.

The prosecutors, Paxton’s lawyers added, are improperly trying for a do-over on this change-of-venue decision.

“It simply defies belief that the State can get two bites at the apple on the critical jurisdictional issue that Judge Johnson already properly ruled on by allowing a new judge who is similarly situated with Judge Johnson (i.e., both represented by the Texas Attorney General in the same case) to review Judge Johnson’s prior ruling. This is the ultimate appearance of impropriety.”

In their response, the prosecutors said Paxton’s own lawyers already undercut their argument when they told the Houston Chronicle last month that Johnson never needed to step off the case.

“He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office,” Paxton attorney Philip Hilder told the Chronicle.

A Collin County jury indicted Paxton in July 2015. Since then, his case has been repeatedly delayed by fights over where the trials should take place, how much the prosecutors should make and what judge should preside. Paxton’s defense team spent more than a year attempting to have the charges against their client thrown out. They failed.

Hurricane Harvey also delayed the case and many others in Houston. The COVID-19 pandemic could further push any possible trial back.

Paxton is charged with two first-degree felonies over allegations that he persuaded friends to invest in a McKinney technology company called Servergy Inc. without telling them he received 100,000 shares of stock. He also is charged with a third-degree felony, accused of funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being registered with the state. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded and fined Paxton $1,000 for this failure to register in 2014.

If found guilty, Paxton could face two to 10 years in prison for the third-degree felony and five to 99 years for each of the first-degree felonies, as well as fines. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

When I started writing this post, I began with the post title, and I was pretty sure that it was Paxton who had demanded a new judge in the past, but I wasn’t sure and I knew it would take a lot of archive-diving find an answer. I’m thankful the DMN did that work for me. Who wants to bet this case will still be active when the voters go to choose an AG in 2022?

Hey, remember District B?

This makes me so mad.

Cynthia Bailey

For the last couple months, Tarsha Jackson has organized north Houston neighborhoods around criminal justice reform, helping to release a “Justice Can’t Wait” policy platform she said the city could enact immediately.

Cynthia Bailey has been working in the same communities, solving what she calls “neighborhood issues” and distributing masks and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected underserved communities like those in north Houston.

Renee Jefferson-Smith said she has helped ensure seniors there have hot meals and groceries.

They are familiar roles for candidates running for local office, but lately frustrating ones. Other candidates who ran on the same ballot last fall have been in office for seven months now, working within City Hall to enact policies they favor and helping to deploy city services to constituents that need them.

Tarsha Jackson

The election Jackson, Bailey and Jefferson-Smith ran in — the District B seat on city council — has been on hold since December amid an ongoing legal battle over the ballot.

District B, a majority Black and Latino area between just northeast of downtown to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Incumbent Jerry Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Texas House, has remained in the seat to ensure district residents have representation. Still, many residents and community leaders there feel left behind.

“They have gone from being upset about it, to trying to understand, to now they’re mad as hell,” said Angeanette Thibodeaux, president of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council. “How ironic is this? How terrible is this? That in a time when we need representation and leadership and support, the one district that needs it more than any is disenfranchised once again. That hurts. In the pit of my stomach, that hurts.”

[…]

The candidates’ lawyers expect an appellate ruling in early August, perhaps as soon as next week, that they hope will settle the matter. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will call an election as soon as the courts decide it can.

See here, here, and here for some background. First and foremost, I’m mad that our laws continue to punish people who have otherwise completed in full the sentence for whatever past crime they may have committed. Cynthia Bailey had as much right to be on that ballot as anyone. We need to fix these racist old laws.

Second, I’m mad at Renee Jefferson Smith for dragging this out. I can understand that she felt like the system wronged her, but the damage she has caused far outweighs any injury she may have received. At any point, she could have accepted the result, allowed the voters of District B to select their next Council member, and worked to change or clarify the law so that this situation would not happen again. She could have chosen to put the district’s needs ahead of her own, but she did not. She may prevail in court – I don’t think that would be a just outcome, because you cannot conclusively determine that she would have finished in the runoff had Cynthia Bailey never been on the ballot, but it is a possible ruling we could get – but if so she does not deserve to be rewarded for it. The only acceptable result at this point is for Tarsha Jackson or Cynthia Bailey to be the next Council member in B.

And just think, this situation could be even worse right now. If Jerry Davis had won his primary runoff against Harold Dutton, then District B would have no one sitting at the Council table for them, for however long it would take to get a court ruling. Even that could come with a down side, as the possibility still exists that someone will file a lawsuit over some vote or other action Davis has taken while serving as Council member-in-overtime, on the grounds that he was not legally able to serve past the end of his term. That hasn’t happened yet thank God, but it still could.

At this point, if we get a ruling before August 17, I think we can have the runoff on the November ballot. I’m assuming here a ruling that denies Jefferson Smith’s appeal and verifies that Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey are the only candidates for the office. I don’t know if this has to be approved by City Council or not, but if so we’ll need the ruling even sooner than that, say by August 10. It would be very nice to get that ruling this week. And if Jefferson Smith prevails and we need to have some kind of do-over…I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just file this in the “Underappreciated Ways In Which 2020 Has Sucked” folder and go from there.

A whole lot of Paxton case news all of a sudden

Brace yourselves.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court on Monday abated a recent decision to move the criminal cases against Attorney General Ken Paxton from Harris to Collin County, giving a new judge on the case the chance to revisit that order.

The abatement is a win for special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice. It will also allow the judge, Jason Luong, to consider whether to reinstate pay to the prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016. The prosecutors confirmed the appeals court decision to The News but declined to speak to the matter further.

Paxton’s lawyers said they were “disappointed” and “troubled” that the appeals court ruled without giving them a change to respond.

“Mr. Paxton’s response brief on the merits of returning the case to Collin County was due today and filed after the Court had already decided to abate the case,” Paxton defense attorney Bill Mateja told The News in a statement. “As such, we intend to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling.”

I did not know that it was in play for the First Court of Appeals to “abate” the ruling that moved the Paxton case back to Collin County. (I also don’t exactly know what “abate” means here, and how it differs from “overturns or “reverses”. You lawyers out there, please chime in.) I did know that Robert Johnson, the judge in Harris County who ruled that the case should go back to Collin, then recused himself because the AG’s office will be representing criminal district court judges in Harris in the latest bail reform lawsuit. I had not known that a new judge – who, it should be noted, is in the same boat as Judge Johnson in re: the bail lawsuit, unless he decides to make like Chuck Silverman and side with the plaintiffs. I’m putting all that in here so as not to quote the whole damn story. Now back to the excerpt:

Paxton’s legal team applauded the decision [to move the case back to Collin County] at the time and said the attorney general is ready to have his day in court.

“We are gratified by the Court’s ruling and look forward to getting Mr. Paxton’s case back on track. This case has gone on far too long,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said in an emailed statement that day. Bill Mateja added: “The Prosecutors need to let Judge Johnson’s decision stand and allow Mr. Paxton to have his day in court.”

The special prosecutors appealed his decision.

In early July, the 1st Court of Appeals delayed moving the cases to Collin County until it could rule on the merits of the prosecutors’ arguments that they remain in Houston. Now, the prosecutors say the court has abated Johnson’s decision and allowed Luong, a Democrat, to revisit the move back to Collin County.

Luong, who is also being represented by Paxton’s office in the same separate case as Johnson, has not answered questions about whether he too will recuse himself from this case.

Did you know that the original Paxton indictments are now five years old? Let’s just say I don’t believe Attorneys Cogdell and Mateja in their assessment of how long this has taken and their client’s desire to see the inside of a courtroom, even one in front of a presumably friendly judge. It ain’t the not-paid-since-2016 special prosecutors who have dragged this out for so long. I have no idea what issue there may be for Judge Luong to decide in re: their pay, but 1) they deserve to be paid, and 2) any further action on that front will for sure drag this out until the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, the ball is literally in Judge Luong’s court, and we’ll see what the next action item is. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I have been given the following explanation of what an “abatement” is:

A Texas appellate court “abates” a case when it decides that there is some action a trial judge must take before the case goes forward. The same word is used in other circumstances but it almost always means a court is pausing proceedings.

This is a mandamus in which the prosecutors are challenging Judge Johnson’s transfer order. A mandamus is technically a suit against the trial judge in their official capacity. The First Court’s order yesterday abated the case because it had learned Judge Johnson had recused himself and Judge Luong is the new judge. The case against Judge Johnson can’t proceed because there’s a new judge who must be given an opportunity to either agree or to vacate Judge Johnson’s order. If Judge Luong agrees with Judge Johnson, the mandamus will proceed against the new judge. If he vacates, it will be up to Paxton’s defense counsel to try the case here or appeal the new judge’s order.

This type of abatement is not unusual and is all but mandatory when there is a change in judges in the middle of a mandamus. It’s unfortunate that the appellate brief was filed after the abatement, but that happens sometimes. It would be unusual if the court of appeals had not abated the mandamus to allow Judge Luong time to rule.

That makes sense to me, and as you can see from the court order, the abatement is for 45 days. So, in the next six weeks or so we should know if the ruling to move the case back to Collin County is still in place or if it has been vacated. (This is assuming Judge Luong doesn’t recuse himself, in which case I presume the main effect would be to push the timeline further back, because sure, why not.) Once we have that, we’ll know who’s appealing what. Isn’t this fun?

Move to Collin County on hold, Paxton judge recuses himself

Stay with me here.

Best mugshot ever

The Harris County state district judge who handed Attorney General Ken Paxton a big win by moving his criminal case back to Collin County two weeks ago is now recusing himself because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

Now Judge Robert Johnson’s quick exit is leading the attorneys prosecuting Paxton to question the decision to move the case back to Paxton’s home county.

Johnson, who did not respond to requests for comment, made the venue change decision on June 25. A day later, he and all 22 other Harris County felony judges were added as defendants in a lawsuit alleging that the region’s bail practices discriminate against poor defendants.

The Attorney General’s Office represents state agencies and individual employees of the state and officially became counsel to Johnson and 19 other judges on July 1.

[…]

Prosecutors in the case have appealed the move to Collin County, and the First Court of Appeals on Tuesday granted a motion for a stay of the proceedings during the appeal.

One of the prosecutors, Kent Schaffer, says the recusal raises questions about when Johnson knew he had a potential conflict of interest. He said he plans to look into the issue and will continue to push for the venue change to be voided.

“If we can show that he was already in conversations with the AG about representation, he should have recused himself at that point,” Schaffer said. “If he had a conflict, he shouldn’t have ruled on it to begin with.”

Johnson said in court documents on Monday that he was recusing himself out of a concern that his “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” citing from the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Philip Hilder, an attorney for Paxton, said Tuesday that he has no doubt that Johnson’s decision to move the case should stand.

“The judge’s ruling was completely based in following the law and facts and (he) made the right decision by sending the case back to Collin County,” Hilder said. “He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office.”

Johnson had agreed with Paxton that the judge who moved the case to Harris County in 2017 did so after his term had expired and the decision therefore should not stand.

The case is out of Johnson’s hands for now until the appellate court rules — either upholding the move to Collin County or sending it back to his courtroom.

See here for the background. I agree that the addition of district criminal court judges to the bail reform lawsuit, for which they will be represented by the Attorney General’s office, is a complicating factor, and that it would have been better if Judge Johnson had either ruled or recused himself before that happened. I can’t quite articulate what the conflict of interest may be here, but as a matter of general principle it would be best to separate the two cases. Given the reasons why the case was moved in the first place, maybe moving it to Bexar or Fort Bend or some other large-but-not-Collin county is the better way to go; I’d guess no one was advocating such a position, however. As usual, this case gives me a headache, so I’m just going to leave this here and wait till the First Court of Appeals makes its ruling.

District B lawsuit drags on

Double ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

It could be another four to five months before voters in Houston’s District B can select a new city council member, extending a delay that has held up a runoff there since December.

The Houston-based First Court of Appeals previously denied requests from top vote-getters Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey to expedite the appeal process of the legal case that has held up the runoff. On Tuesday, the appellate court also denied a request to dismiss the case outright.

Doug Ray, assistant Harris County attorney, said the two sides now will exchange briefs on a standard schedule, a process he said could take four or five months.

The runoff was supposed to be in December with a dozen other city contests, and the winner would have taken her seat in January. It was pulled from the ballot amid the ongoing litigation. Now, it will miss the May 2 ballot, as well.

“Who knows when there will be an election?” said Larry Veselka, the attorney representing first-place finisher Jackson. “It’s ridiculous.”

[…]

Oliver Brown, attorney for Cynthia Bailey, said Jefferson-Smith’s team is just “beating a dead horse.”

“That’s all they’re doing now,” Brown said. “They’re costing these candidates money, because they keep trying to ramp up their campaigns, and then they have to stop.”

See here and here for the previous updates. This week is the deadline for printing mail ballots, so the absence of an expedited ruling or a dismissal of the appeal means we continue slogging our way through the process. There’s a calendar date for the case for March 23, so the May election is right out at this point. Next up, barring an expedited election date granted by the state, is November. I don’t even want to think about what could happen to that possibility. What a freaking mess.

Judicial Q&A: Veronica Rivas-Molloy

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Veronica Rivas-Molloy

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Veronica Rivas-Molloy. I am honored and proud to ask for your support to become a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, Place 3.

I am a wife, a mother of three young sons, a proud immigrant to this country, and a practicing attorney of almost 20 years. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, the first to obtain an advanced degree, and the first attorney. If elected, I will be the first judge in my family, the first Democratic elected Hispanic attorney to serve on the First Court of Appeals, and only the second Latina to serve on the court in 128 years, bringing much needed diversity to our appellate bench.

I have a degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish (with honors) from the University of Texas at El Paso. I graduated with honors and at the top of my law school class from the University of Houston Law Center. After graduation, I secured a highly coveted position as a judicial clerk in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, gaining invaluable experience. For the last 17 years, I have worked at top-tier law firms representing my clients in litigation and appellate matters in Texas and other jurisdictions in the United States. I have handled hundreds of complex litigation matters involving various industries and areas of the law, tried over 20 jury cases (including civil, criminal, and immigration matters), and counseled my clients on a variety of appellate matters. My experience is extensive and it has prepared me well for the position I now seek.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

There are 14 Courts of Appeals in Texas, each presiding over a specific geographic territory. The First Court of Appeals is located in Houston, Texas. The Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices preside over the court and hear civil and criminal (except death penalty) appeals originating from trial courts in 10 counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I want to serve my community and give back to the legal profession that gave me a voice and the opportunity to advocate on behalf of others. I have a passion for what I do, and I want to use my skills and experience to give back to our community and serve our judicial system, for which I have profound respect. I also want to bring my wealth of experience and diverse voice to our appellate bench, where I feel I can make a meaningful contribution.

On a personal level, I also want to set an example for my children and diverse youth who may be considering a career in law. I want them to know the importance of civic duty and service, and for them to grow up knowing that immigrants, mothers, and diverse attorneys can be Justices and serve our communities with integrity, excellence, and hard work.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for almost 20 years, handling a wide-variety of complex business disputes throughout Texas and other jurisdictions in the United States. I have represented numerous clients in state and federal courts, including county courts at law, district courts, appellate courts, and before domestic and international arbitral tribunals in disputes involving oil and gas operations, real estate, healthcare, construction, personal injury, employment matters, trade secrets, non-compete and restrictive covenants, and a diverse range of complex contractual and business-related matters. I have met the highest and most rigorous standards at all levels of my legal profession: student, law clerk, and legal practitioner.

I graduated with honors from the University of Texas at El Paso with a double degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish. I graduated from the University of Houston Law Center with honors and at the top of my law school class, where I served as an Article Editor on the Law Review, a Prosecutor on the Honor Court, the Vice President of the Hispanic Student Bar Association, and a Class Representative for the Student Bar Association.

After graduation, I secured a highly coveted position as a judicial clerk working for the Honorable Ewing Werlein, Jr. in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, where I gained invaluable experience working on a significant number of civil litigation matters. I worked on procedural and substantive matters assisting the court with trials, dispositive motions, jurisdictional disputes, evidentiary hearings, expert challenges, injunction hearings, pre-trial matters, jury charges, findings of fact, and conclusions of law. I engaged in rigorous legal analysis and extensive brief writing, drafting recommendations on the myriad of cases and legal matters presented to the court over the course of two years.

Working in court also helped me understand not only the importance of having open access to our courts and the significance of the rule of law to our democracy, but also the importance of staffing and administration of a court’s docket to ensure efficient, fair and prompt resolution of pending cases. I also understood very early on that judges are servants of our judicial system, and, that as such, they have a duty to rule with impartiality, justice, equality, and with utmost respect for our judicial system. I learned the importance of having proper judicial temperament, and the importance of excellence, hard work and integrity.

Following my clerkship, I worked at the law firm of Baker Botts, LLP, where I continued to work on various litigation matters helping further refine my analytical, oral, and written advocacy skills. I represented clients across different industries in matters involving general commercial litigation and complex business disputes. I also served as a volunteer prosecutor for the City of Houston, where I managed the docket of the court (first-chair) once a week, engaging in various matters, such as plea bargaining, interfacing with defense counsel, working with court staff, officers, and witnesses, and trying numerous cases to the jury involving administrative and criminal matters.

For the last 10 years, I have worked at the law firm of Jones Walker, LLP, advocating for my clients and representing them on a diverse range of complex business disputes and appellate matters. I represent clients in state and federal courts across Texas, and other jurisdictions in the United States, including county courts at law, district courts, appellate courts, and arbitral tribunals. I have first-chair experience handling a significant number of bench and jury civil matters, helping my clients develop legal strategy and conduct fact discovery and investigations, motion practice, depositions, preparation and presentation of witnesses and experts, evidentiary hearings, expert challenges, legal briefs, jury charges, pre-trial matters, mediations, arbitrations, trial, and appeals in a wide-variety of complex business disputes.

My significant experience in civil litigation makes me uniquely suited to be a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, because more than half of all appeals filed before that court involve civil matters, including complex business disputes like the ones I have been handling for years. It is important to elect judges who have a robust civil litigation practice and experience in trial courts, from which these civil appeals originate. I have that experience. In addition, it is vital that we elect judges who have strong written advocacy skills. As a litigator and former law clerk, a significant part of my practice has been devoted to rigorous legal analysis and extensive written advocacy.

In addition to my litigation practice, I work directly with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) providing pro bono representation to unaccompanied minors in their immigration and asylum proceedings. I also serve as General Counsel for Holy Trinity Episcopal School of Greater Houston, where I provide pro bono legal advice and representation to the school on various matters. I am also actively involved in my sons’ schools, having served on their parent teacher organizations, volunteering on multiple committees and special projects, and volunteering as their catechism teacher at our church.

5. Why is this race important?

Our courts of appeals hear significant cases that affect not only the parties before the court, but our communities at large. The decisions appellate courts render also influence our jurisprudence on a statewide level because they set the precedent our lower courts and legal practitioners apply and follow in their daily practice. It is important to elect judges who have a proven record of success, high qualifications for the job, and a commitment to doing the hard work necessary to give each case the attention it deserves for the parties, our communities, and the integrity of our judiciary and system of laws.

It is also vital that our courts reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. No attorneys of color presently serve on the First Court of Appeals, which presides over some of the most diverse counties and cities in our country. It is imperative that we improve the diversity of our appellate bench. Diversity not only enhances our judiciary by ensuring that different life perspectives and experiences form part of the decision-making process when ruling on significant legal issues, it also helps enhance the public perception and legitimacy of our judicial system.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have significant experience and the skill set necessary to be an excellent Justice on the First Court of Appeals. My record of success is a testament to the quality of work and commitment I will bring to the bench.

I have a strong work ethic and self-discipline, both of which have served me well and have resulted in my success as an attorney. I have achieved not only academic success in my career, graduating with honors and at the top of my law school class, but also professional success, securing a federal clerkship and working at top-tier firms, providing legal advice to my firm clients and also giving back by representing indigent clients on a pro bono basis in various matters. I will bring that same work ethic and discipline to the bench to ensure diligent, fair, and prompt resolution of matters before the court.

I have a reputation for producing high caliber legal work, and for professionalism, always working with the utmost respect for my colleagues, clients, and adversaries. I strive to work with integrity and the highest ethical standards at all times—values that are the foundation of my legal career and should be at the core of any judicial candidate or jurist. If excellence, hard work, and integrity are values that resonate with you, then I ask for your vote. Those values have defined me as a person and professional, and they will guide me as a Justice on the First Court of Appeal serving you and our community. I hope to earn your trust and your vote. It will be a privilege to serve you and our judiciary.

Judicial Q&A: Amparo Monique Guerra

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Amparo Monique Guerra

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Amparo Monique Guerra and I am running for Justice, First Court of Appeals, Place 5. I am a lawyer, judge, mom of three children, and wife. I am the first Hispanic partner in my law firm. I have 17 years’ experience as a litigator, at both the trial and appellate levels, in state and federal courts throughout Texas and the U.S. I handle complex cases for a wide range of clients, from individuals to large multi-national corporations. When I was originally appointed to be a Municipal Judge for the City of Houston in 2005, I was the youngest sitting judge on the court, having been appointed at 28 years old.

I am a graduate of Rice University (double-major in Sociology and Latin American Studies), where I was on the President’s Honor Roll. I obtained my J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center, which awarded me a Dean’s Merit Scholarship, as well as Public Interest Fellowships to work with Texas Rural Legal Aid, and with Farmworker Legal Services in Michigan.

I clerked for a U.S. District Judge immediately following law school. I look forward to bringing my background, strong work ethic, and experience as a lawyer and a judge to the Court of Appeals.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The intermediate courts of appeals hear civil cases (including, but not limited to, business, family, probate, and personal injury) and criminal cases (except death penalty cases, which are appealed directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) from the trial courts throughout a ten-county district, which includes Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington Counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Public service has always been a passion of mine. My mother (Retired Justice Linda Yanez) was the first Latina on a court of appeals in Texas. I was a federal judicial law clerk for U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela immediately following law school. Judge Vela showed me that the duties of a judge include being an excellent jurist, but should also extend beyond the courtroom to the community it serves. He often had us law clerks speak at schools and at naturalization ceremonies. In addition, we were instructors in a pre-law academy for undergraduate students. He and my mom instilled in me how one can use a law degree to serve the community, and so as soon as I could be a judge, I became one at 28 years old. As a judge, I treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter who they are or where they come from.

I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm, and I have been promoting diversity on the bench for years. When I saw that Democrats could win seats at the courts of appeals here (which essentially had not happened in about 20 years), I was ecstatic, but when I looked at the composition of the bench, I noticed that the court sorely lacked the diversity that I know this community embodies. Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; however, our courts of appeals have no African American and no Hispanic justices. This is the perfect opportunity for me to utilize my unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge to serve my community in a greater capacity.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In addition to the qualifications listed in response to Question 1, I am eminently qualified to be a justice on the court of appeals because I have a wide breadth of experience as a lawyer handling cases throughout Texasin federal and state, trial and appellate courts, and other states, and I have judicial experience in a criminal court.

My most notable strength is my ability to dive into complex legal issues, and quickly master and apply the law to the facts. I have a varied background representing all types of clients from individuals and families, to business of all sizes, including sole proprietorships and large multi-national corporations. In fact, for the past four years, I have served as lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience as a federal judicial law clerk, and as a trial court judge, having presided over many trials. Therefore, I know firsthand what it means to make decisions from the bench that effect litigant’s lives, and the profound responsibility that entails. I have a deep respect for the rule of law, and I strive to apply the law in the most just way possible.

I handily won the State Bar of Texas Judicial Poll, which shows that more lawyers prefer me and find me more qualified than my opponent in the primary. I am humbled by the outpouring of support I have received during this campaign from elected officials, and highly respected members of the bar, including criminal defense lawyers, civil litigators, personal injury lawyers, legal aid lawyers, appellate practitioners, criminal law and appellate law professors, in-house counsel, and a former Justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in Texas).

5. Why is this race important?

As stated in my response to Question 2, this is a court of general jurisdiction that hears civil and criminal cases from its ten-county district. Unlike the Texas Supreme Court (Texas’ highest court for civil cases), and the Court of Criminal Appeals (Texas’ highest criminal court), which decide which cases to accept on a petition for review, the intermediate courts of appeals must issue opinions regarding each and every case that is appealed to them. Because fewer cases are appealed to our two supreme courts, and those courts do not accept review of every case, the intermediate courts of appeals are often the last word on many important legal issues. Where there is no opinion from the two supreme courts on an issue which an intermediate court of appeals is called to decide, that appellate opinion controls the lower/trial courts within the court of appeals district.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have a wide breadth of experience in my seventeen years of practice, in addition to being a judge. I have worked in legal aid clinics, municipal and federal courts, as well as law firms of all sizes—small, mid-size, and large. I am the only judge, the only woman, and the only person of color in this race. I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm. I have 3 children, 2 jobs, and a husband who is a tremendous partner.

I have an outstanding reputation among my peers for excellent research and writing and oral advocacy skills, as well as a keen ability to dive into complex legal issues, swiftly master and apply the law to the facts, and successfully advocate for my clients. I do all of this in an environment where I am typically the only woman and/or the only person of color among my colleagues and opposing counsel.

I have demonstrated I have judicial temperament on the bench. I am a vetted and trusted public servant. I was repeatedly reappointed to serve as a municipal judge because of my impeccable record of integrity, impartiality, and strong work ethic (I handle a demanding law practice full-time, and I serve on the municipal court part-time).

I have represented all types of clients from individuals and families, to businesses of all sizes, including sole proprietorships, small businesses, and national, as well as multi-national, corporations. In fact, I have been lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world for the past four years, handling cases for it in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience handling very complex (and typically very high-dollar) matters, not just run-of-the-mill cases, in the following areas: business disputes including business torts and breach of contract cases in various industries, such as energy, oil & gas (including Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act matters), medical care, real estate, and insurance; employment and ERISA litigation and advice; consumer litigation; insurance coverage and bad faith; civil rights; receivership; Carmack Amendment; toxic/mass tort; and personal injury, including wrongful death. I also serve as a guardian ad litem in personal injury cases involving minors.

My education has been in highly competitive academic environments. I have always been a studious person ever since I was very young. When I was in seventh grade, I was selected based on my exemplary achievement test scores by the Duke University Talent Identification Program to sit for the SAT with high school students. My scores prompted interest in me by an organization called A Better Chance (ABC), which places academically gifted students in selective college preparatory schools throughout the country. Through ABC, I was accepted to and received a full scholarship to attend St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island as a boarding student. I attended St. George’s for all four years of high school and graduated with distinction. While in high school, I worked during one summer with Mano A Mano, a March of Dimes organization in Brownsville. I worked in medical clinics for indigent people in very impoverished areas on both sides of the border, and did community outreach to educate and disseminate information to women regarding proper prenatal health. This program was, in large part, a response to the prevalence of encephalitic births on both sides of the border. Working in clinics in Mexico and Brownsville without electricity or running water, and witnessing the lives of those much less fortunate than I impacted me greatly and reinforced my interest in public service. That experience showed me two worlds – one of extreme wealth in New England, and another of extreme poverty on the U.S.-Mexico border. That juxtaposition has stayed with me and informs much of what I do and how I think about social justice issues.

I am multi-lingual—an invaluable asset in this most diverse area of the country. I am fluent in Spanish from my family background and formal education. I have a Superior Certification in Legal and Commercial Spanish from the Chamber of Commerce in Madrid, Spain. I also speak Portuguese and Italian.

When I set my mind on a goal, I give it my all. My candidacy is no exception. My hard work is one of the many reasons I have been awarded every organizational endorsement granted to date in this race. My organizational endorsements are in addition to my many individual endorsements from elected officials and well-respected lawyers.

My election will change the face of the court of appeals where we sorely lack diversity. This court of appeals district includes ten counties, including Harris and Fort Bend. It is well-known that Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; yet, our courts of appeals do not reflect our rich diversity. We need diversity, not for diversity’s sake, but to have a mixture of backgrounds and ideas at the table on this multiple judge court. My mother, Retired Justice Linda Yanez, was the first Latina to serve on a court of appeals in Texas. She left a legacy I would be honored to continue here on the Houston court of appeals.

I will apply my strong work ethic, unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge when I am elected to the court of appeals, where I will continue to be a hard-working judge ruling on cases expeditiously with respect for the rule of law.

Endorsement watch: The judges

After a couple of Republican endorsements, the Chron gives us a slate of judicial candidates for the Democratic primary in the district courts. A brief summary:

Singhal in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

We recommend Dinesh Singhal, 52, who has tried more than 25 cases and handled 19 appeals.

Hootman in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

We recommend Tim Hootman, 57, an experienced appellate lawyer who is known for having an atypical legal approach.

Robinson in Democratic primary for chief of the 14th Court of Appeals

We recommend Jane Robinson, 46, who is board certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Kronzer in Democratic primary for 14th Court of Appeals Place 7

We recommend Wally Kronzer, 65, who has extensive appellate court experience in state and federal courts.

Weiman in Democratic primary for 80th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Larry Weiman, 64, who has been on this bench since 2008.

Harvey in the Democratic primary for the 164th Harris County District Court

We recommend Grant J. Harvey, 55, who is a highly regarded litigator who has participated in numerous trials and appeals.

Daic in the Democratic primary for the 165th Harris County District Court

We recommend Megan Daic, 34, for a court that needs a more efficient and decisive judge.

Acklin in the Democratic Primary for the 176th Harris County District Court

We recommend Bryan Acklin, 34, who is a former prosecutor and is now a criminal defense attorney.

Martinez in the Democratic Primary for the 179th Harris County District Court

We recommend Ana Martinez, 39, who gained a sterling reputation as a human trafficking prosecutor before she became a defense attorney.

Moore in the Democratic Primary for the 333th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Daryl Moore, 58, who may be the most respected incumbent running in Harris County.

Kirkland in the Democratic Primary for the 334th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Steven Kirkland, 59, who has been on this bench since 2016 and served on another civil bench and a municipal bench before that.

Gaido in the Democratic Primary for the 337th Harris County District Court

We recommend Colleen Gaido, 39, who is a respected former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney.

Bell in the Democratic Primary for the 339TH Harris County District Courts

We recommend Te’iva Bell, 39, who has served in the felony courts from three perspectives – as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney and a public defender. H

Powell in the Democratic Primary for the 351th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent George Powell, 54, who was elected to this bench in 2016.

Phillips in the Democratic Primary for the 507th Harris County District Court

We recommend C.C. “Sonny” Phillips, 59, who has been practicing family law, and occasionally appellate law, for 34 years.

They did actually say more about the candidates they recommend, and they noted who else was on the ballot. Go read all that for yourself. As noted, Weiman, Moore, Kirkland, and Powell are incumbents, while Harvey (Alex Smoots-Thomas), Daic (Ursula Hall), Acklin (Nikita Harmon), Martinez (Randy Roll), and Phillips (Julia Maldonado) are running against incumbents. Here are the Q&A’s I’ve run from candidates in these races:

Tim Hootman, 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Jane Robinson, Chief Justice, 14th Court of Appeals
Wally Kronzer, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Grant Harvey, 164th Civil Court
Megan Daic, 165th Civil Court
Bryan Acklin, 176th Criminal Court
Ana Martinez, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Steven Kirkland, 334th Civil Court

Q&A’s from candidates not endorsed by the Chron:

Tamika Craft, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. “Velda” Faulkner, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Cheryl Elliott Thornton, 164th Civil Court
Jimmie Brown, 165th Civil Court
Judge Randy Roll, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Julia Maldonado, 507th Family Court
Robert Morales, 507th Family Court

Q&A responses from Natalia Cornelio (351st Criminal Court) and Cheri Thomas (14th Court of Appeals, Place 7) are in the queue and will be published in the next couple of days. The Chron will do endorsements for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals separately, and will not be endorsing in the County Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable races. That’s one way to get through this long list of candidates and races in a (mostly) timely fashion.

One last thing: As is often the case with these judicial endorsements, I agree with some and not so much with others. The one that surprises me is the endorsement of Judge Powell. After the big deal the Chron made about not endorsing any judge or judicial candidate who didn’t support bail reform in 2018, it’s a bit jarring to see no mention at all of that subject in this context.

Judicial Q&A: Tim Hootman

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Tim Hootman

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Tim Hootman, running for Justice of the First Court of Appeals, Place 5.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The First Court of Appeals reviews orders and judgments from all trial courts from ten counties (Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington).

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I love appeals and am the most qualified candidate for the job.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Argued in the United States Supreme Court. Handled appeals in every appellate court in Texas. Handled 373 state appeals. Handled 17 federal appeals. Have over 80 published opinions. Handled dozens of state and federal jury trials in 19 Texas counties. Ex staff attorney in the First Court of Appeals. The specific details of my qualifications are on my website: www.HootmanForJudge.com.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because the judges reviewing the orders and judgments from the trial courts of ten counties should be done by the most qualified person possible.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I am the most qualified candidate running for the First Court of Appeals, Place 5.

Texas Lawyer’s judicial race coverage

As you know, I’ve been busy with judicial Q&As as usual, but this year I’m not the only one chasing down judicial candidates to ask them why they’d make good judges. Texas Lawyer, a part of the Law.com publication, is flooding the zone with its own Who’s Running For Judge In Texas Elections? 2020 Voters Guide. Normally you need to give Texas Lawyer your email address and are limited to three articles per month – they’ll send you a daily newsletter and breaking news, both of which have highlighted stories that I’ve blogged about that I hadn’t yet seen elsewhere – but they appear to have made this feature publicly available. They’ve got their own Q&As with the candidates, most of whom responded to them, which has some overlap with my own questions – not a surprise, there’s only so much you can ask them because there’s only so much they can ethically say. Anyway, a big thumbs up from me, so go check it out and annoy the critics of our current system by making informed choices in the upcoming primaries.

After-deadline filing review: Courts

Let’s return to the wonderful world of scoping out our candidates. Today we will concentrate on judicial races. Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, and the Lege.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

I’ve actually covered all of these races, and given bits of info about the candidates, here and here. Go read those posts for the details, and here as a reminder are the candidates’ names and Facebook pages:

Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Jerry Zimmerer

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

Covered to some extent here, but there has been some subsequent activity, so let’s get up to date.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Dinesh Singhal – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Jim Sharp – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

Rivas-Molloy and Singhal were mentioned previously. Jim Sharp is the same Jim Sharp that won in 2008 and lost in 2014.

Amparo Guerra – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Tim Hootman – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

Both candidates were also previously mentioned. This is the seat now vacated by Laura Carter Higley.

Jane Robinson – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice
Jim Evans – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice

Jane Robinson has been mentioned previously. Jim Evans was a candidate for Family Court in 2014, and was appointed as an associate judge on the 507th Family Court in 2017, making him the first openly gay family court judge in Texas. He doesn’t have a campaign presence yet as far as I can tell.

Wally Kronzer – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Tamika Craft – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Cheri Thomas – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. Faulkner – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Dominic Merino – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Not sure why this court has attracted so many contestants, but here we are. Kronzer was the only candidate I knew of in that previous post; Cheri Thomas came along a bit later, and the others were all later in the filing period. Texas Judges can tell you some more about the ones that don’t have any campaign presence.

Harris County District Courts

The following lucky duckies have no opponents in the primary or the November general election:

Kristin Hawkins (11th Civil)
Kyle Carter (125th Civil)
Mike Englehart (151st Civil
Robert Schaffer (152nd Civil)
Hazel Jones (174th Criminal)
Kelli Johnson (178th Criminal)
Ramona Franklin (338th Criminal)

The next time you see them, congratulate them on their re-election. The following almost-as-lucky duckies are in a contested primary for the 337th Criminal Court, with the winner of the primary having no opponent in November:

Brennen Dunn, who had been in the primary for the 185th Criminal Court in 2018; see his Q&A here.
Colleen Gaido.
Veronica Sanders.
David Vuong
John A. Clark, whom I cannot positively identify. I hope everyone sends in Q&A responses, but I’m not voting for any candidate I can’t identify. I hope you’ll join me in that.

The following do not have a primary opponent, but do have a November opponent:

Fredericka Phillips (61st Civil).
RK Sandill (127th Civil), who in 2018 was a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Michael Gomez (129th Civil).
Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil)
Elaine Palmer (215th Civil).

Natalia Cornelio is currently unopposed in the primary for the 351st Criminal Court following the rejection of incumbent Judge George Powell’s application. That may change pending the outcome of Powell’s litigation in the matter.

The following races are contested in both March and November:

Larry Weiman (80th Civil, incumbent).
Jeralynn Manor (80th Civil).

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas (164th Civil, incumbent). Formerly Smoots-Hogan, now dealing with legal issues of her own.
Cheryl Elliott Thornton (164th Civil), who has run for Justice of the Peace and County Civil Court at Law in the past.
Grant Harvey (164th Civil).

Ursula Hall (165th Civil, incumbent).
Megan Daic (165th Civil).
Jimmie L. Brown, Jr. (165th Civil).

Nikita Harmon (176th Criminal, incumbent).
Bryan Acklin (176th Criminal).

Randy Roll (179th Criminal, incumbent).
Ana Martinez (179th Criminal).

Daryl Moore (333rd Civil, Incumbent).
Brittanye Morris (333rd Civil).

Steven Kirkland (334th Civil, incumbent). It’s not a Democratic primary without someone challenging Steve Kirkland.
Dawn Rogers (334th Civil).

Te’iva Bell (339th Criminal).
Candance White (339th Criminal).
Dennis Powell (339th Criminal), whom I cannot positively identify.
Lourdes Rodriguez (339th Criminal), whom I also cannot positively identify.

Julia Maldonado (507th Family, incumbent).
Robert Morales (507th Family).
CC “Sonny” Phillips (507th Family).

That about covers it. I should do a separate entry for JPs and Constables, and I did promise a Fort Bend entry. So there will likely be some more of this.

UPDATE: I missed Robert Johnson, the incumbent Judge of the 177th Criminal District Court (the court that now has Ken Paxton’s trial), in the first go-round. Johnson had an opponent file for the primary, but that application was subsequently rejected. He has no November opponent, so you can add him to the list of people who have been re-elected.

Filing report update

We’re a week out from the official filing deadline for the 2020 primaries. There’s still a lot of known candidates who haven’t filed yet, but I expect there will be a mad flurry of activity this week, as is usually the case. Don’t be surprised if we hear of an out-of-the-blue retirement or two, as that is known to happen at this time as well. I’m going to take a quick look at where we stand now, and will provide other reports as needed before the deadline on Monday. My sources for this are as follows:

The Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.
The Secretary of State Candidate Information page, which is quite handy and reasonably up to date.
Texas Judges, whose provenance is unknown to me, but they have the most information I’ve found about candidates for statewide and Courts of Appeals judicial races.
Jeff Blaylock’s Texas Election Source – I may be too cheap to subscribe, but the free info he includes is always worth noting.

SBOE

We have a third Democrat in the race for SBOE6, Kimberly McLeod. She is Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at HCDE and a former professor at TSU. She joins former HCDE Board member Debra Kerner (who has filed) and teacher Michelle Palmer (who had not yet filed, at least according to the SOS, as of this weekend).

We have a filing for SBOE5, the most-flippable of the SBOE districts up for election this year, Letti Bresnahan. Google tells me that a person by this name was a Trustee at San Antonio’s Northside ISD (she is not on the Board now). She was elected in 2008, narrowly re-elected in 2012, and I guess didn’t run in 2016; the Bexar County Elections report for May 2016 doesn’t list the NEISD Position 6 race, so who knows what happened. In 2015, she voted to keep the name of San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High school; it was subsequently changed to Legacy of Education Excellence (LEE) High School in 2017, by which time as far as I can tell she was no longer on the Board. That’s a whole lot more words than I intended to write about her or this race – and mind you, I can’t say for sure this is the same Letti (Leticia) Bresnahan. I noted this because I’ve been keeping an eye on this race – the district was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was the bluest of the Republican-held SBOE districts in 2018, and the incumbent is a wingnut. So I was gonna write something when a Dem filed, I just didn’t expect it to be this.

State Senate

Someone named Richard Andrews has filed as a Democrat against Sen. Borris Miles. The Svitek spreadsheet has him as a General Election opponent, but his website clearly says “Democrat”, and the SOS has him as a Democrat. He’s a doctor, and that’s all I know about him.

State House

Current SBOE member Lawrence Allen, Jr, who is the son of State Rep. Alma Allen, has filed in the increasingly crowded Democratic primary in HD26. It’s one of the nine GOP-held districts that Beto won in 2018. Rish Oberoi, Suleman Lalani, and 2018 candidate Sarah DeMerchant have also filed.

Travis Boldt has filed in HD29, in Brazoria County. That was one of two near-miss districts (Beto got 47.0%) in which no Dem was on the ballot in 2018; HD32, which does not yet have a candidate filed, was the other.

Sandra Moore, who lost in the 2018 Dem primary to Marty Schexnayder, has filed to run again in HD133.

Ashton Woods has changed the name of his Facebook page to indicate he plans to run in the primary for HD146, currently held by second-term Rep. Shawn Thierry. He has not filed as of this writing.

So far, no one else has filed to run in the primary for HD148, where Anna Eastman is in the runoff for the special election, and has made her filing for 2020.

First Court of Appeals

I hadn’t gotten into the Courts of Appeals in my previous discussions, but especially after the sweep of these races by Dems in 2018 (and not just on this court), they will surely be of interest to multiple candidates.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy, who has officially filed, and Dinesh Singhal are in the race for Place 3 against incumbent Russell Loyd, who was elected in 2014. The Texas Judges website also lists Keith F. Houston as a candidate, but he appears to have decided not to run.

Amparo Guerra and Tim Hootman have both filed for Place 5, which had been held by the now-resigned Laura Carter Higley. There are three Republicans running so far, and there may be another if Greg Abbott appoints someone to fill the still-vacant seat prior to the filing deadline.

14th Court of Appeals

Jane Robinson is the (so far, at least) lone Democrat running for Chief Justice. I saw her at the HCDP Friendsgiving last month but did not have the chance to walk up and say Hi. The position is held by Justice Kem Thompson Frost, who is not running for re-election. Justice Tracy Christopher, who holds Place 9, is running for Chief Justice. She was last elected in 2016, so she would not otherwise be on the ballot. My assumption is that if she wins, she will move over from Place 9, which will make Place 9 vacant, and Abbott will appoint someone who would then run in Christopher’s spot in 2022. If she loses, she’ll remain in her spot and run for re-election (or not, as she sees fit) in 2022.

Wally Kronzer, who has filed, and Cheri Thomas are running for Place 7. Kronzer ran for Place 5 on this court in 2010. Ken Wise, in his first term, is the incumbent.

District courts

I don’t see any primary challengers yet for incumbent Democratic district court judges. I have heard someone is circulating petitions to challenge Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, which I think we can all understand. I’m not in a position to say anything more than that as yet.

County offices

Audia Jones has officially filed for Harris County DA. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have both filed for County Attorney. Michael Moore has filed for County Commissioner in Precinct 3; Kristi Thibaut and Diana Alexander both announced their filings on Facebook over the weekend, but the SOS has not caught up to those filings yet. Bill McLeod, of accidental resignation fame, has filed to win his old seat on County Civil Court at Law #4 back. Incumbent Judge Lesley Briones has not yet filed. We will have a contested primary for at least one of the two HCDE at large positions, as Erica Davis has filed in Position 5; here’s her appointment of treasurer. Andrea Duhon, who had run for a different HCDE position in 2018, has already filed an appointment of treasurer for this race. David Brown is running for the other spot, Position 7, and as far as I know has no Dem opponent as yet.

Now you know what I know. We’ll all know a lot more in a week’s time.

Justice Higley resigns

This is clearly the best course of action.

Justice Laura Higley

Justice Laura Carter Higley, who lives in West University and served on the Houston-based court, submitted her notice to Gov. Greg Abbott, the appeals court’s clerk confirmed Tuesday. In the letter, she did not offer a reason for stepping down from the bench, he said.

“Her service is appreciated by us and the state of Texas,” clerk Christopher Prine said.

The justice, a Republican, has held Place 5 on the court since 2002. She was re-elected in 2008 and 2014, with her term set to expire December 2020.

[…]

It’s unknown whether Justice Higley has been on the receiving end of any official complaints related to her work. Those would be brought to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the oversight group for judges, interim executive director Jacqueline Habersham has said.

See here for the background. Greg Abbott has accepted the resignation, and will appoint a new justice, who will be on the ballot in 2020 as Higley would have been. If recent patterns hold, he’ll appoint one of the Republican judges who were ousted in either 2016 or 2018. Regardless, I wish Laura Higley all the best with her health and care.

The case of Justice Laura Higley

This is a sad situation, one with potentially fraught political implications.

Justice Laura Higley

An appeals court justice serving Southeast Texas continues to sit on the bench as she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, all while facing familial discord over the control of her $8 million estate, court records show.

Her sons launched an effort this month to become her legal guardians, alleging that Justice Laura Carter Higley, 72, is continuing with her daily routine in a manner contrary to the path of her failing cognitive health. That includes driving herself to work downtown and serving in her capacity on the First Court of Appeals based in Houston, said sons Garrett C. Higley and Robert Carter Higley.

“Due to the recent (and rapid) progression of her Alzheimer’s disease, Justice Higley’s mental state has deteriorated to the point that she is no longer able to care for her own physical health or manage her own financial affairs,” the Higley brothers said in the filing for guardianship.

Laura Carter Higley became the subject of the guardianship case in mid-October, just a week after receiving an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, according to documents filed in Harris County Probate Court No. 2. Her wellness issues began more than a year earlier with a diagnosis of an unspecified mild neurocognitive disorder, the sons said in their attempt to pull decisions regarding Higley’s care away from her husband, West University Place Mayor Bob Higley.

[…]

The judge began experiencing mild neurocognitive issues as early as November 2017, according to her sons’ filing. The unspecified disorder progressed to a mild neurocognitive disorder stemming from possible Alzheimer’s disease in March, which again worsened to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease on Oct. 9, court records show.

The justice’s name is not listed next to any decisions made on appeals cases since her diagnosis earlier this month, according to the First Court of Appeals website. But she has been involved in hundreds of decisions on civil and criminal cases since March.

Higley is one of nine justices on the court, which serves Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington counties. The judges mostly hear appeals on cases decided in lower district and county courts in their jurisdiction.

Lillian Hardwick, a Texas attorney who wrote the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said that judges may be fearful of leaving their bench too early while facing an illness. They might enjoy the work, be hesitant to cut off retirement benefits or may not know the scope of their problem.

On the other hand, a justice might feel they’re having issues remembering certain things at home, but “by golly, she can tell you the family law code backwards and forwards,” Hardwick said. Only in the event their disability impedes the ability to perform their duties would they be violating constitutional requirements.

“They should either be retired by somebody or they should be removed,” she said. “That judge is not able to be a judge, it’s pretty simple.”

The justice’s colleagues might be in the best position to notify the commission of a potential unfitness for office, said Jonathan Smaby, the executive director at the Texas Center for Legal Ethics.

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be competent and diligent, he said, although the justice might not be aware of their own lack of competence.

“It’s not always obvious to the person when they’re suffering from age-related decline,” Smaby said. “To say it’s an ethics violation makes it sound like it’s intentional.”

There’s a lot more in there about the dispute between Justice Higley’s husband and sons. I don’t want to get into that, but we have to consider the implications of Justice Higley’s health. That assumes there is an issue with her health – we have allegations but no confirmation, so we’re in the realm of speculation, which is an uncomfortable place to be. I hope she is well, and I hope that if that changes, or if any of her colleagues has reason to believe that it has changed, that they take appropriate action with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The people who have cases before the First Court of Appeals deserve judges who are all at the top of their game.

In the meantime, Justice Higley will be up for re-election in 2020. It is certainly possible that she will step down and allow Greg Abbott to appoint someone to her seat, so that person would run instead. Like I said, all speculation. I expect we’ll hear something more in the near future.

Appeals court upholds dismissal of term limits lawsuit

Score one more for the city.

A Texas appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a 2015 voter-approved referendum extending term limits for city officials.

At issue in the suit was Proposition 2, a ballot measure that changed Houston’s charter to limit elected officials to two four-year terms instead of the previous cap of three two-year terms.

Community activists Phillip Paul Bryant and James Scarborough alleged in their lawsuit that former mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston used “deceptive ballot language” to “selfishly expand term limits.”

Parker was term-limited out of office and did not receive a longer term due to the ballot referendum, which easily passed.

Eric Dick, an attorney for Scarborough, said he would appeal the case.

“I said from the beginning it’s going to be decided in the Supreme Court of Texas,” Dick said.

See here for the background, and here for a press release from the city. The court’s ruling is here, and the TL;dr version of it is “the district judge got it right when he ruled that the ballot language was sufficiently fine”. They rejected the plaintiffs’s argument that the ballot language was misleading. Obviously, the Supreme Court is gonna do what the Supreme Court is gonna do, but for now at least it’s all systems normal for this year’s election.

Appeals court affirms pension bond lawsuit

Hope this is now over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas 1st Court of Appeals has struck down an appeal from a Houston businessman who contested the city’s 2017 pension bond referendum, appearing to end the legal challenge that began almost a year and a half ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office had denied former housing director James Noteware’s allegation that the mayor misled voters into approving the $1 billion bond sale with a “materially misleading ballot description.”

Noteware claimed that the election authorized the city to pay off the bonds by levying a tax that exceeds its voter-imposed revenue cap.

A state district judge last year dismissed Noteware’s claim without ruling on his motion for summary judgment in the case.

In the ruling, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had issued an opinion approving and validating the bonds, while Noteware’s claim “depends on contingent or hypothetical facts.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the ruling. Noteware’s claims are summarized in the Chron story, while the city countered that 1) the Attorney General certified the bonds as being in compliance with the revenue cap; 2) the election was held, the bonds were sold, and the taxes to pay for them were levied, so there’s no action for the court to take; and 3) any claim that payment of the bond may violate the revenue cap in the future cannot be litigated now. The court accepted the city’s arguments and the appeals court upheld the ruling. Based on this ruling, it’s theoretically possible there could be future litigation over that last point, but if so it will most likely be someone else’s problem.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.

Judicial Q&A: Sarah Beth Landau

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Sarah Beth Landau

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Sarah Beth Landau. I’m a Harris County Public Defender and an adjunct professor of appellate litigation at Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. I am running for the First Court of Appeals, Place 6.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Court of Appeals hears all appeals from all cases ranging from civil to criminal, juvenile to probate, and family law, from a 10-county area.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The short answer is that we need balance, fairness, and diversity of experience on the court. I was a federal public defender for 10 years before I came to work for Harris County. I had appellate culture shock when I began representing indigent criminal defendants in state court because there are many errors at trial that go uncorrected by the Court of Appeals. These are the kinds of errors that would be corrected in federal court. I think we can do better.

In looking at why this was happening, I realized that not one justice on the Court of Appeals has significant criminal defense experience. Nearly all of the justices come from the same large-firm civil background. They are all from the same party. They vote all the same way on cases nearly all of the time. The Court and the law would benefit from justices with different backgrounds, particularly since criminal cases make up a large percentage of the court’s business.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law in a variety of settings for the last 20 years after graduating from Columbia University School of Law. I clerked for a federal judge and have done civil and criminal, public and private, state and federal, trials and appeals. Over the course of over 600 appeals, I have represented everyone from multinational corporations to average folks who could not afford to pay for an attorney. I have also taught and mentored law students for six years and enjoy giving back to my community through volunteer work and the arts.

5. Why is this race important?

The majority of the court is up for election this November so it is not just one or two seats at stake — control of the court is up for grabs. The court has been controlled by one party for over 20 years, so it is a key election for that reason as well. Most of the law is made at this level because the highest courts in Texas only accept a tiny fraction of cases for review. Most cases stop at the Court of Appeals level so the decisions of this court affect many people.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

This position is a logical next step on my path of service to our community. I have been a devoted public servant for 12 years. This season, I have been fortunate enough to receive the endorsement of several non-partisan organizations, including the Association of Women Attorneys and the Mexican American Bar Association. I believe we can do better in extending justice to all who come before the court. It is time for a change.

Judicial Q&A: Richard Hightower

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Richard Hightower

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Richard Hightower, Democratic nominee for Justice, 1st Court of Appeals, Place 8.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 1st Court of Appeals hears both criminal and civil appeals from trial courts in ten Texas counties, including Harris County.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Appellate courts in Texas should be balanced with justices elected from both parties. Currently all 36 of the appellate court justices overseeing Harris County (the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) were elected as Republicans. This is not a reflective balance of the diverse communities served. I believe that appellate court justices should serve in a fair and impartial manner, follow the law, and avoid political associations and relationships that place in question their ability to do so.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been a practicing attorney for over 37 years, graduating from Baylor Law School in 1980, and a member of the Baylor Law Review. I am currently the owner of Richard F. Hightower P.C. and serve as of-counsel to the Oaks, Hartline & Daly law firm. I have been a trial attorney for over 20 years, have represented both Plaintiffs and Defendants, and throughout my practice have represented the interests of our public school districts and community colleges in both urban and rural counties. I was co-counsel in one case argued before the United States Supreme Court. In addition, I have served as an outside examiner/officer and as a certified mediator in hundreds of disputes.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because voters have an opportunity to provide balance and a diversity of background and experience to the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. Fairness and justice for all are on the ballot as ten seats on these two courts are up for reelection this November. I am honored to have the opportunity to provide my broad experience and sound judgment to the 1st Court of Appeals.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

With over 37 years experience as a practicing attorney, I have been involved in many of the types of cases that might come before the 1st Court of Appeals. I have experience in large firms and small firms, and I have experience in large counties and small counties. I have been involved in complex multi million dollar litigation and have also represented parties in family law, juvenile, probate, criminal, employment, and breach of contract cases. I was honored by my peers by receiving the AV Preeminent rating from Martindale Hubbell, the highest possible rating in both legal ability and ethical standards, and by being listed as a Super Lawyer by Texas Monthly Magazine. I also received more votes than my opponent in the 2018 State Bar preference poll sent to all lawyers in the ten county district served by the 1st Court of Appeals.

Judicial Q&A: Julie Countiss

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Julie Countiss

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I’m Assistant County Attorney Julie Countiss and I’m the Democratic nominee for First Court of Appeals,
Place Seven.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The First Court of Appeals hears criminal and civil cases on appeal from the trial courts in a 10-county district. The district is comprised of the following counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The justice who has served on this bench for 17 years is not seeking re-election so it is an open seat. I saw an opportunity to run in a race without an incumbent. There is rarely ever an open seat on the First Court of Appeals. Usually, the justice who is stepping down leaves before the term expires so that the governor can appoint a like-minded replacement. The concern I have with a system of appointing rather than electing state court judges is the risk of elitism and politics infecting the process. Electing judges has its own pitfalls but it provides an opportunity to people who are willing to put themselves out there and do the hard work of campaigning and getting to know the voters and the precinct chairs and members of the bar. The doors to the courtroom are meant to be wide open for everyone and I am running to keep them open.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have 16 years of experience and I was appointed Assistant County Attorney in 2014. I have the honor of serving the people of Harris County every day in complex federal and state court litigation. I am also in the Nuisance Abatement Group working with law enforcement to hold business owners accountable who profit from criminal enterprises like illicit spas where women are often trafficked. For the appellate courts, it’s important to elect candidates with solid trial court experience who understand the civil trial courts in particular. I won the State Bar of Texas Judicial Preference Poll for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 7 in 2018. My campaign has been endorsed by the GLBT Caucus of Houston, the Harris County Tejano Democrats, the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston, the Pasadena Bar Association, the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation/AFL-CIO, and several former appellate court justices, including my Dad who served on the 7th Court of Appeals in Amarillo.

5. Why is this race important?

In 90% of cases, the First Court of Appeals is the last chance for parties to seek justice in both criminal and civil cases. The nine justices on the First Court of Appeals were all elected or appointed as Republicans. I’m seeking the place currently held by Justice Jennings who is not running for re-election. Justice Jennings switched parties in 2016 and is often the lone dissenter. The dissent rate is approximately 1% on the Court. There should be more diversity of experience and diversity of thinking on the Court of Appeals. I’m more likely to bring those qualities to the court than my opponent who is very vocal about his anti-equality political beliefs and his dedication to Dr. Steven Hotze and the Conservative Republicans of Harris County PAC.

I also believe the quality of justice in the First District could be greatly improved by making equal access to justice a bigger priority. The overwhelming cost, time commitment and complexity of the legal process can be a barrier for so many people. Important decisions are made in our courts every day that impact the lives of working families and those decisions can really hurt their pocketbooks, property rights, civil rights, health, custody and marital property rights and employment. This is especially true for those who can’t afford a quality attorney. I would like to see more funding for legal aid and more incentive for attorneys to provide pro bono representation to low income individuals at the appellate level.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have more experience practicing law in the civil courts than my opponent. For the appellate courts, it’s important to elect candidates with civil litigation experience who understand the civil trial courts. The justices on the First Court of Appeals spend close to 70% of their time on complex civil appeals. I stay up-to-date on important appellate decisions that impact my practice areas. I maintain a robust motions and trial court practice — writing and arguing complicated and contentious legal issues frequently. I have the core values, integrity, experience and dedication to public service necessary to be an excellent justice.

Judicial Q&A: Gordon Goodman

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Gordon Goodman

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Gordon Goodman
Candidate for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 2

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 1st Court of Appeals hears both civil and criminal appeals from trial courts in 10 counties of Southeast Texas including Harris County.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Many appeals only reach the courts of appeals level so this is where a large number of important questions for our region and state are addressed.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Prior Professional experience

  • NRG Energy, Inc.

Director of Governance and Enterprise Risk Management

  • Occidental Petroleum Corporation

Vice President-Planning & Control, Occidental Energy Marketing
Member, Occidental’s Risk Management Committee

  • E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.

President, DuPont Power Marketing, Inc.
Senior Vice President, Conoco Global Power

  • Howell Corporation

President, Howell Power Systems, Inc.

Prior Board Memberships

  • College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Univ. of Houston

Dean’s Advisory Board (Former Chairman and Member)

  • Houston Area Urban League

Board of Directors (Former Member and Chairman of the Audit Committee)

  • Jesse H. Jones School of Business at Texas Southern University

Advisory Council (Former Member)

  • Blaffer Gallery, Univ. of Houston

Advisory Board (Former Chairman and Member)

Prior Professional Advisory Panels

  • Energy Oversight Committee, formed by GARP and API To implement the Energy Risk Professional (ERP) Certificate Program
  • Valuation Resource Group, panel formed by FASB to advise on issues arising under FAS 157 (Fair Value Measurements)
  • The Energy Trading Working Group, an advisory panel formed by the Emerging Issues Task Force at FASB to advise on FAS 133 issues

Professional Associations

  • The American Petroleum Institute’s (API’s) Risk Control Committee (Founding Chairman and Former Member)
  • The American Petroleum Institute’s (API’s) General Committee on Finance (Former Member)
  • Texas State, Pennsylvania, and Energy Bar Associations (Member)
  • The Bachelier Finance Society (Member)

Education

  • University of Pennsylvania Law School, Philadelphia, PA (1974-1977): J.D.
  • University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA (1971-1974): Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude

5. Why is this race important?

The lack of diversity of opinion on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals is striking given the wonderful diversity that we see in this region of southeast Texas.  I am eager to provide a different point of view on the most important matters of the day and to insure that fairness and justice is available to all parties when they bring appeals to these courts.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

In addition to my support for civil rights, voting rights, equal protection, and due process under the law, I also bring extensive knowledge and a deep understanding of finance, commerce, and the important business questions of our day and time.  By having this expertise on the 1st Court of Appeals, we can provide a useful forum for the largest and most significant commercial disputes that arise in southeast Texas.

Paxton still pushing for a new judge

Still, he persisted, I guess.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawyers are not giving up in their bid to get a new judge in his securities fraud case.

Earlier this month, Judge George Gallagher ordered Paxton’s trial be moved to Harris County from Collin County, where Paxton lives, after prosecutors argued Paxton and his allies had tainted the jury pool there. Paxton’s team wrote Friday to Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel requesting that he assign the case to a new judge. Paxton “has not and will not give” his permission for the current judge to follow the case to Harris County, Paxton’s lawyers wrote to Daniel.

The letter, which was filed in court Monday, is the latest development in a standoff between Paxton’s team and Gallagher, whose spokeswoman said last week he will remain on the case. The spokeswoman, Melody McDonald Lanier, also said Gallagher does not need to rule on a motion Paxton’s lawyers made earlier this month that amounted to their initial request for a new judge.

In the letter to Daniel, Paxton’s lawyers continued to cite a part of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that says a judge ordering a change of venue may only continue to preside over the case with the consent of both sides. Gallagher, who is from Tarrant County, has been presiding over the case since its early days in 2015.

See here and here for the background. I know that the District Clerk assigns district court judges in new cases, but this is a continuation of a previous case, and it’s one where the judge was assigned from another county after the original judge recused himself. Is there anything in existing law to suggest that the District Clerk has the authority to assign a new judge after the venue was changed to the Clerk’s county? I have no idea, and based on the prior reports, this is something no one has asked for before. I’m kind of wondering why Team Paxton hasn’t gone to the 1st or 14th Courts of Appeals with this request; maybe he wants to show that he exhausted all other avenues first. Whatever the case, I have to assume the question will eventually wind up there. And I have to wonder, is this all worth it? Do they really think they’ve been screwed by Judge Gallagher so far, and that the risk of making things really awkward in his court is worth the possibility of getting a different judge, one who may not have any more tolerance for his lawyers’ tactics? Again, I have no idea. But it sure is fun to watch. The Chron has more.

Paxton wants a new judge

He may not get his wish.

Best mugshot ever

The judge presiding over Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal trial plans to remain on the case, regardless of Paxton’s request for a new judge, his spokesman said.

“He anticipates remaining the judge,” District Judge George Gallagher’s spokeswoman Melody McDonald Lanier told the Houston Chronicle Thursday.

Paxton’s criminal defense team requested a new judge after Gallagher moved Paxton’s criminal trial to Harris County from Paxton’s home of Collin County, a move the attorney general’s lawyers opposed. Special prosecutors argued the attorney general’s allies had worked to poison the jury pool there.

Lawyers representing the embattled Republican attorney general said in a motion Tuesday they would refuse to sign off on a procedural move to to keep Gallagher with the case at it moves to Harris County.

Asked for comment about Paxton’s motion to remove him as the case’s judge, Gallagher’s spokeswoman said “He can’t comment because he is the judge and he anticipates remaining the judge.”

[…]

“As far as I know, there is nothing in the Code of Criminal Procedure that addresses what is to happen if the defendant or defense counsel withholds the consent to which article 31.09 refers,” said George Dix, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to the code Paxton cited in his motion. “No case, as far as I know, has addressed the meaning of this provision.”

See here and here for the background. As the DMN notes, what Paxton is asking for is basically unprecedented.

It’s quite possible no one else has ever asked for what Ken Paxton wants now.

This week, after Judge George Gallagher moved the attorney general’s upcoming criminal trials from Collin to Harris County, Paxton asked for a new judge. He cited a state law that’s meant to be procedural, a way for Gallagher to maintain the original case number and continue to use his own court reporter and clerk when the proceedings move to Houston.

But Paxton’s attorneys have interpreted the law to also require their client’s “written consent” for Gallagher to continue presiding over the case.

Paxton didn’t give his consent. He’s the first to refuse to do so and ask for a new judge in the process, experts said.

[…]

If Paxton’s motion is granted and upheld on appeal, it could set a precedent that will allow any criminal defendant or prosecutor to use the same tactic and get a new judge if a case is moved. But it’s unclear how likely that is to occur.

If Judge Gallagher denies the motion, the Chron story suggests any appeals would be heard by either the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas or the 1st or 14th Court of Appeals in Houston. I don’t think this is likely to affect the proposed trial calendar, but as noted we are in unprecedented territory here. Already the entertainment value of this proceeding is off the charts, and we’re still five months away from jury selection.

City loses appeal of procedural argument in term limits lawsuit

Stay with me, because this is going to take a bit of explaining.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected the city’s procedural challenge to a lawsuit that could force Houston’s mayor and city council members to revert to three two-year terms, from the two four-year terms voters approved in November 2015.

The Texas First Court of Appeals ruling did not address the merits of the underlying case, which centers on whether the city’s ballot language was misleading.

Rather, the court’s decision marks an incremental step in what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process that plaintiffs hope could trigger municipal elections as early as this fall.

Austin election lawyer Buck Wood, however, said he considers November mayoral and city council elections improbable, given the speed with which courts typically move.

[…]

The appellate court’s ruling affirms state District Judge Randy Clapp’s decision last year to reject Houston’s procedural challenge, which sought to get the case thrown out.

Clapp was not considering the substance of the case at the time, though he tipped his hand by calling the city’s ballot language “inartful” but not “invalid.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said Thursday the city attorney’s office is considering whether to appeal the procedural decision to the state Supreme Court.

If the trial court’s 2016 procedural decision holds, the case likely would return to Clapp for a hearing on the substance of whether Houston’s term limits ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

See here for the background. Where this gets confusing is that the original story didn’t explain all of what was happening in that first hearing. There was a motion by the plaintiffs for summary judgment, which was denied. That was the win for the city, as now a trial is required to settle the question of whether the ballot language was misleading or not. The rest of it was about procedural matters: Whether plaintiff’s attorney Eric Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick. District Court Judge Clapp ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss on these matters. The city appealed that ruling, and the First Court of Appeals upheld Judge Clapp.

The city can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do and they win, the lawsuit will be dismissed. If they lose, or if they choose not to appeal, the matter will be returned to Judge Clapp’s court for a trial on the merits of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are hoping to get a ruling in time for there to be city elections this November; they claim August is the deadline for that, though I’d argue that more time would be needed for real campaigns to occur. However, as the story notes, even if the plaintiffs win, there’s no guarantee that city elections would follow as a result. What might happen instead is that the city would have to put a differently-worded term limits referendum on the ballot. That maybe could happen this November, or it might happen in 2018. Or even later than that, depending on how long it takes to get a ruling and how long the appeals of that ruling take. Remember how long it took to get a Supreme Court decision in the Renew Houston lawsuit? The 2010 referendum was subsequently voided more than a year ago, and yet here we are, with no new election for it in sight. Mayor Turner has joked that it will be up to his successor to get the term limits issue straightened out because it won’t be settled till after his eight years in office. I’m not sure he’s joking about that.

Precinct analysis: Brazoria County

I had some time to spare, so I spent it with the canvass reports from Brazoria County. You know, like you do. Here’s what I was able to learn.


        Trump   Clinton   R Avg   D Avg   Weber    Cole
=======================================================
Votes  36,572    15,127  37,036  14,996  37,917  14,678
Pct    68.58%    28.23%  71.18%  28.82%  72.09%  27.91%


        Trump   Clinton   R Avg   D Avg   Olson  Gibson
=======================================================
Votes  36,219    28,073  39,026  26,713  40,179  26,178
Pct    54.08%    41.92%  59.37%  40.63%  60.55%  39.45%


        Trump   Clinton   R Avg   D Avg   Thomp   Floyd
=======================================================
Votes  40,666    30,564  43,599  29,181  44,713  28,505
Pct    54.83%    41.21%  59.95%  40.05%  61.07%  38.93%

Votes  32,125    12,636  32,462  12,528
Pct    69.23%    27.23%  72.15%  27.85%

Brazoria County is part of two Congressional districts, CDs 14 and 22, and two State Rep districts, HDs 25 and 29. The latter two are entirely within Brazoria, so the numbers you see for them are for the whole districts, while the CDs include parts of other counties as well. The first table splits Brazoria by its two CDs, while the second table is for the two HDs. Incumbent Republican Randy Weber was challenged by Democrat Michael Cole in CD14, while Republican Pete Olsen was unopposed in CD22. The second group of numbers in the first table are the relevant ones for CD22; I didn’t include Olsen because there was no point (*). There were no contested District or County Court races, so the “R Avg” and “D Avg” above are for the four contested district Appeals Court races; these are the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals, which as you know includes Harris County.

The second table is for the State Rep districts. In HD29, incumbent Republican Ed Thompson faced Democrat John Floyd, while Republican Dennis Bonnen was unchallenged in HD25. You can sort of tell from the tables and I can confirm from the raw data that HD29 mostly overlapped CD22, and HD25 mostly overlapped CD14. As I have done before, the percentages for the Presidential races are calculated including the vote totals for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, which is why they don’t add to 100%. The other contested races all had only two candidates.

Still with me? If so, you can see that HD29 was much more interesting than HD25, and was where basically all of the crossover Presidential votes were. Trump lagged the Republican baseline in HD25, but those voters mostly either skipped the race or voted third party. Viewed through the Presidential race, HD29 looks like a potentially competitive district, but if you pull the lens back a bit you can see that it is less so outside that, and that Thompson exceeded the Republican baseline on top of that. It would be nice to point to this district as a clear opportunity, but we’re not quite there. There is another dimension to consider here, however, and that is a comparison with the 2012 results:


       Romney     Obama    Cruz  Sadler   R Avg   D Avg   Weber Lampson
=======================================================================
Votes  35,571    13,940  34,618  13,865  33,931  14,444  33,116  14,398
Pct    70.82%    27.75%  69.34%  27.77%  70.14%  29.86%  69.70%  30.30%


       Romney     Obama    Cruz  Sadler   R Avg   D Avg   Olsen  Rogers
=======================================================================
Votes  35,291    20,481  34,879  19,879  34,466  20,164  35,997  17,842
Pct    62.49%    36.27%  62.14%  35.42%  63.09%  36.91%  66.86%  33.14%


       Romney     Obama    Cruz  Sadler   R Avg   D Avg   Thomp   Blatt
=======================================================================
Votes  40,170    22,480  39,657  21,866  39,203  22,204  40,642  21,388
Pct    63.32%    35.44%  62.86%  34.66%  63.84%  36.16%  65.52%  34.48%

Votes  30,692    11,941  29,840  11,878  29,194  12,404
Pct    70.95%    27.60%  69.45%  27.64%  70.18%  29.82%

In 2012, Randy Weber was running to succeed Ron Paul in the redrawn CD14, which had a nontrivial amount of resemblance to the old CD02 of the 90s, which is how former Congressman Nick Lampson came to be running there. He ran ahead of the pack, but the district was too red for him to overcome. Pete Olsen was challenged by LaRouchie wacko Keisha Rogers, Ed Thompson faced Doug Blatt, and Dennis Bonnen was again unopposed. I threw in the numbers from the Ted Cruz-Paul Sadler Senate race in these tables for the heck of it.

The main thing to note here is that HD29 was a lot more Republican in 2012 than it was in 2016. Ed Thompson went from winning by 31 points in 2012 to winning by 22 in 2016, with the judicial average going from nearly a 28 point advantage for Republicans to just under a 20 point advantage. Total turnout in the district was up by about 11,000 votes, with 7K going to the Dems and 4K going to the Republicans. That still leaves a wide gap – 14K in the judicial races, 16K for Ed Thompson – but it’s progress, and it happened as far as I know without any big organized effort.

And that’s the thing. If Democrats are ever going to really close the gap in Texas, they’re going to have to do it by making places like HD29, and HD26 in Fort Bend and the districts we’ve talked about in Harris County and other districts in the suburbs, more competitive. If you look at the map Greg Wythe kindly provided, you can see that some of the blue in Brazoria is adjacent to blue precincts in Fort Bend and Harris Counties, but not all of it. Some of it is in Pearland, but some of it is out along the border with Fort Bend. I’m not an expert on the geography here so I can’t really say why some of these precincts are blue or why they flipped from red to blue in the four years since 2012, but I can say that they represent an opportunity and a starting point. This is what we need to figure out and build on.

(Since I initially drafted this, Greg provided me two more maps, with a closer view to the blue areas, to get a better feel for what’s in and around them. Here’s the North Brazoria map and the South Brazoria map. Thanks, Greg!)

(*) – As noted in the comments, I missed that Pete Olsen did have an opponent in 2016, Mark Gibson. I have added the numbers for that race. My apologies for the oversight.)

Races I’ll be watching today, non-Legislative edition

vote-button

This is my companion to yesterday’s piece.

1. SBOE district 5

I’ve discussed the SBOE races before. This particular race, between incumbent Ken Mercer and repeat challenger Rebecca Bell-Metereau, is the one that has the closest spread based on past performance, and thus is the most likely to flip. If it does flip, it would not only have a significant effect on the SBOE, which would go from 10-5 Republican to 9-6, with one of the more noxious members getting ousted, it would also cause a bit of a tremor in that this was not really on anyone’s radar going into 2016. Redistricting is supposed to be destiny, based on long-established voting patterns. If those patterns don’t hold any more, that’s a big effing deal.

2. Appeals courts

I’ve also talked about this. The five courts of interest are the First, Fourth, Fifth, 13th, and 14th Courts of Appeals, and there are multiple benches available to win. I honestly have no idea if having more Democrats on these benches will have a similar effect as having more Democrats on the various federal appellate benches, especially given that the Supreme Court and CCA will most likely remain more or less as they are – I would love to hear from the lawyers out there about this – but I do know that having more Dems on these benches means having more experienced and credible candidates available to run for the Supreme Court and CCA, and also having more such candidates available for elevation to federal benches. Building up the political bench is a big deal.

3. Edwards County Sheriff’s race

Jon Harris is an experienced Democratic lawman running for Sheriff against a wacko extremist in a very Republican county, though one with a small number of voters. This one is about sanity more than anything else.

4. Waller County Sheriff’s race

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have this one on my radar until I read this Trib story about the race, in which the recent death of Sandra Bland is a factor. Waller County went 53-46 for McCain over Obama in 2008, though the Sheriff’s race that featured a problematic Republican was a lot closer. It was 58-41 for Romney, which is close to what it was statewide. Democratic challenger Cedric Watson will have to outperfom the countywide base to defeat incumbent Glenn Smith, it’s mostly a matter of by how much he’ll have to outperform.

5. Harris County Department of Education, Precinct 2

There aren’t any at large HCDE Trustee positions up for election this year, so I haven’t paid much attention to them. This race is interesting for two reasons. One, the Democratic candidate is Sherrie Matula, who is exceptionally qualified and who ran a couple of honorable races for HD129 in 2008 and 2010. And two, this is Jack Morman’s Commissioner’s Court precinct. A win by Matula might serve as a catalyst for a strong candidate (*cough* *cough* Adrian Garcia *cough* *cough*) to run against Morman in 2018.

6. HISD District VII special election

You know this one. It’s Democrat Anne Sung versus two credible Republicans and one non-entity who hasn’t bothered to do anything other than have a few signs put up around town. One key to this race is that it’s the only one that will go to a runoff if no one reaches 50% plus one. Needless to say, the conditions for a December runoff would be very different than the conditions are today.

7. HISD recapture and Heights dry referenda

I don’t think any explanation is needed for these.

What non-legislative races are on your watch list for today?

Judicial Q&A: Barbara Gardner

(Note: I ran a series of judicial Q&As for Democratic candidates in contested primaries earlier this year. I am now doing the same for the candidates who were unopposed in March, which includes most of the sitting incumbent judges. As always, this is to help you the voter know a little bit more about the candidates on your ballot. I will be publishing these in the order I receive them. You can see the Q&As and interviews I did for the primaries on my 2016 Election page.)

Barbara Gardner

Barbara Gardner

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Barbara Gardner, and I am running for the 1st Court of Appeals, Place 4.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Courts of Appeals, made up of 14 districts across the State, hear and write opinions on every type of law: car wrecks, real estate, commercial disputes, probate, employment, divorce, criminal misdemeanors – everything except felonies, which go straight to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The Courts of Appeals have become biased in their opinions, mostly looking for ways to rule for large corporations, to the disadvantage of individuals and small business. These courts generally decide the result they want, and then “shoe-horn” the law to fit that result. Also, they take away too many juries’ verdicts. I am running because I can bring balance and a better, fairer perspective to the 1st Court of Appeals.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I graduated #1 in my law school class; I have been a trial lawyer for over 30 years and have handled cases all the way up to the US Supreme Court. I was a law clerk for a federal judge when I finished law school. Also, I am board certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Specialization. I believe that Courts should follow the law, and they are not doing that very well. Some of my other accomplishments include:

• “Best Lawyers in America” (Employment Law), 2007–2016

• “Highest Possible Rating” in Legal Ability & Ethical Standards by Judiciary & Bar members, Martindale Hubbell 2015-2016

• “Texas Super Lawyers,” 2007–2016

• “Texas Top Lawyers,” 2012-2016

• “Women Leaders in the Law,” Fortune Magazine 2015

• “Top-Rated Lawyers in Labor & Employment,” Fortune Magazine 2013

• “The Best Women Lawyers in Texas,” 2013

• “Texas’ Best Lawyers,” 2009–2013

• “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Texas” 2012

• “Top Lawyers,” Corporate Counsel, 2008-2011

• “Houston’s Top Lawyers,” 2006, 2007, 2011

• “Top Lawyers for the People,” 2007

• AV-Preeminent rating by peers in Martindale Hubbell

• Interviewed as expert several occasions on Houston’s Fox 26 News TV

• Former Partner & Head of Employment Law Section of Lam, Lyn & Philip

• One of founding principals and partner of Tucker, Vaughan, Gardner & Barnes

5. Why is this race important?

This race is extremely important because the Courts of Appeals’ written opinions constitute the law that controls every Texas citizen’s rights and conduct. There is a very limited right to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. Even though the State Legislature writes statutes, the statutes may be a few sentences or a page or two in length. Then the Court of Appeals writes a long opinion about what the statute “really” means. Also, there are many laws that are not based on any statute, such as negligence, car wrecks, bad injuries and death. Those are based on the “common law” which the Courts of Appeals write.

Currently, more than half of the justices on the 1st Court of Appeals initially were appointed by the governor to get on the court, including my opponent. Most people know very little about Courts of Appeals, and so those appointed stay there for many years.

It is the job of the Court of Appeals only to determine whether the judge in the lower court made a legal error. The Courts of Appeals go far beyond that and take the case into their own hands, deciding many times a completely different outcome than the jury’s verdict.

Even if one tried to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, more than half of those judges also were hand-picked and appointed by the governor. As I mentioned above, the governor chooses those who will carry out his pro-big business philosophy.

We need a change.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am well qualified as described in #4 above. I know the courtroom like the back of my hand. And I am not beholden to the governor or big business. I will apply the law correctly and fairly, not because of any political persuasion.

Judicial Q&A: Jim Peacock

(Note: I ran a series of judicial Q&As for Democratic candidates in contested primaries earlier this year. I am now doing the same for the candidates who were unopposed in March, which includes most of the sitting incumbent judges. As always, this is to help you the voter know a little bit more about the candidates on your ballot. I will be publishing these in the order I receive them. You can see the Q&As and interviews I did for the primaries on my 2016 Election page.)

Jim Peacock

Jim Peacock

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Jim Peacock running for Chief Justice, First Court of Appeals.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil and non-capital criminal cases appealed from lower Courts.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

We need greater diversity of opinion on the courts of appeals in Texas. The courts have been dominated for several years by people of a particular mindset that I believe is not completely unbiased. Diversity of opinion can be derived from having different backgrounds and life experiences. The extent of my exposure to more diverse legal experience has enabled me to have a more open and objective approach to matters that will come before the court.

As the titular head of the court it is vital to have someone that is not beholden to any one group or limited by a closed political philosophy. I can offer that capability. Although most of the duties of the Chief Justice are the same as any other justice on the court, there are some differences. As the Chief of the court you can set an example for the entire court of openness and objectivity. I believe in leading by example.

Also the Chief Justice has some duties that bring him in contact with other political entities and subdivisions of government wherein the Chief Justice must represent the interests of the court and of the people that come before the court. I believe that my professional and life’s experience makes me well suited to that purpose. I offer an opportunity to bring change to the court without sacrificing ability or integrity.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have tried nearly 200 jury trials to verdict covering extremely diverse areas of law. Some of the issues tried include: civil rights violations, disability discrimination, racial discrimination, slander, libel, invasion of privacy, fraud, usury, breach of contract, car wrecks, medical malpractice, sexual harassment, guarantor breach, premises liability, capital murder, murder, sexual assault, DWI, etc. The diversity of my experience and the variety of judges I have appeared before has given me a clear understanding of what it takes to be a good judge. I have represented thousands of individuals in my practice and have become adept at understanding the unique nature of each person and each case. I have experienced injustice and unfairness from courts that were indifferent to the rights of individuals. I have also experienced the pleasure of appearing before well qualified and compassionate jurists, one of which I aspire to be. My practice has placed me before dozens of trial courts in Texas, the Court of Appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court, Federal District Courts, Federal Bankruptcy Court, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court.

In addition to my trial experience I have taught numerous areas of law, to other attorneys, on many occasions. I have taught voir dire, opening and closing statements, direct and cross examination of witnesses, trial as theater, and the nexus between criminal and civil law.

5. Why is this race important?

The First Court of Appeals has nine justices. Presently they are all elected or appointed Republicans. The justices have generally come from large civil defense firms or from experience as criminal prosecutors. Virtually none of the members of the court have experience on the plaintiff’s side of civil ligation or the defense side of criminal litigation. The current Chief Justice has held the position for many years after working for a large civil defense firm and serving initially as an appointed then elected judge and later an appointed and then elected justice. Over the years the court’s rulings have consistently favored the defense side of civil cases and the state’s side in criminal matters. The frequency and consistency of the rulings favoring those sides is, in my opinion, not indicative of unbiased review of the cases.

When the rulings of the court overwhelmingly favor one side of litigation it can reduce the public’s belief in the objectivity and fairness of the court. It is crucial that the integrity of the courts be preserved and beyond reproach. We need balance to be returned to the courts in Texas and the Courts of Appeals are essential to that goal. The vast majority of opinions that establish the precedents to be followed by the courts of Texas are from the intermediate courts of appeals. Therefore, the jurisprudence of this state is disproportionately affected by those courts. Few cases are actually ruled on by the Supreme Court or the Court of Criminal Appeals. Thus, the intermediate appellate courts can have a pronounced effect by the sheer volume of their opinions. Ensuring an efficiently run court and pressing for timely rulings is important to obtaining justice.

The Chief Justice is also involved in lobbying various issues relevant to the conduct of the court and has additional administrative duties that pertain to the operation of the court. This race is to determine who will be the Chief Justice of this extremely important appellate court.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have more practical litigation experience than anyone presently on the court. My trial practice has been diverse and has included extensive experience in both criminal and civil matters. I have served as a criminal prosecutor and defense attorney in hundreds of cases and truly understand both sides. I have also handled hundreds of civil cases and have experienced both sides of that docket as well. No one on the court has the multifarious background that I do. This court has jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters and society would benefit from a justice that truly understands what it means to try cases in all areas of law that come before the court.

I also bring the ability to return balance to the court. I am not beholden to any one side or group. I can make rulings that are legitimately unbiased and based only on the evidence and the law. Since I have handled so many different sides of litigation, and represented such diverse groups and people, I can be truly fair and open to all. Because I have over 35 years of trial and appellate experience, I can be productive on the bench immediately and bring a pragmatic perspective that lawyers from a more limited background could not. I represent a change from the status quo by bringing a new and different set of opinions to a court that has been dominated by only one philosophy for far too long.

Endorsement watch: More courts

The Chron has a bunch of judicial race endorsements to make, beginning with the First and 14th Courts of Appeals.

1st Court of Appeals, Chief Justice: Sherry Radack

Both Republican incumbent Sherry Radack and challenger Jim Peacock strongly agree that service on this bench constitutes a great honor. That honor should go to Radack, 65, for another term, although Peacock came as close any challenger has to convincing us that the breadth of his experience as a litigator and the need for more philosophical diversity on the court would justify a switch. But ultimately, it’s hard for us to vote to unseat a sitting justice who is doing a good job, which Radack is.

Justice, 1st Court of Appeals,Place 4: Barbara Gardner

Plato imaged a world run by philosopher-kings, but Republican judge Evelyn Keyes is the closest that Houston gets. Our resident philosopher-judge, Keyes is a member of the prestigious American Law Institute, which helps write the influential model penal code. A graduate of University of Houston Law Center, Keyes also has a doctorate in philosophy from Rice University and a doctorate in English from the University of Texas. She’s penned numerous papers on legal philosophy, exploring the foundational underpinnings of our entire judicial system and arguing about the concept of justice itself.

Now Keyes is running for her third term – a “last hurrah,” she told the editorial board, before she is aged out under state law. If elected, Keyes will be forced to retire after four years of her six-year term and will be replaced by a gubernatorial appointment.

Justice, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2: Kevin Jewell

This race for an open seat offers voters two very different candidates who would each bring great strengths in their own ways.

Republican Kevin Jewell, a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, is board certified in civil appellate law and heads up the appellate practice at the Chamberlain Hrdlicka law firm. Jewell, 48, has spent his career practicing in appellate courts and his resume is practically tailor-made for this position.

Justice, 14th Court of Appeals,Place 9: Tracy Elizabeth Christopher

Justice Tracy Christopher is one of the “smartest, most reasonable judges” on this court. That’s not us talking – that’s her Democratic opponent, Peter M. Kelly, during a meeting with the editorial board. It is the kind of praise that should encourage voters to keep Christopher, a Republican, on the bench. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Christopher, 60, is board certified in civil trial law and personal injury trial law, and served for 15 years on the 295th Civil District Court before her appointment to this bench in 2009. She’s received stellar bar poll ratings, and we were particularly impressed by her insight as to how the state Legislature has overridden common law in Texas, especially in medical malpractice and other torts.

And for the State Supreme Court.

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 3: Debra Lehrmann

Justice Debra Lehrmann, 59, has spent six years serving on the Texas Supreme Court and before that she was a Tarrant County family court judge for 22 years. In that time she has acquired a reputation as a hardworking and respected jurist with a record of success dating back to her days at University of Texas School of Law.

Her Democratic opponent and former judge of the 214th District Court in Nueces County, Mike Westergren, says that there needs to be more balance on the all-Republican court. Lehrmann agrees but they differ as to the nature of the deficit. Westergren argues for more ideological balance, while Lehrmann maintains the justices need to continue to challenge each other.

Justice Dori Garza

Justice Dori Garza

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 5: Dori Contreras Garza

What is Republican incumbent, Justice Paul Green, doing wrong on the Texas Supreme Court? According to his Democratic challenger, Justice Dori Garza, not much.

She told the editorial board that she’s not running against Green personally, but instead to provide greater diversity on the court.

The first in her family to receive a college degree, Garza, 58, attended night school at the University of Houston Law Center and in 2002 was elected to the 13th Court of Appeals, which stretches from Matagorda County south to the U.S.-Mexico border. She’s been re-elected twice and in 2010 was one of three candidates recommended by the Texas congressional delegation to serve as a federal judge in Corpus Christi.

If elected, she’ll bring different personal and ideological perspectives to a court that’s been critiqued as leaning in favor of corporations and state authority at the expense of everyday Texans.

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 9: Eva Guzman

It took 100 pages for the Texas Supreme Court to explain that our state’s school funding system was constitutional, if imperfect. But Justice Eva Guzman’s passionate concurrence should light a fire under Texas politicians who may think that winning at the Texas Supreme Court absolves them of any duty to improve our public schools.

They endorsed challenger Barbara Gardner over incumbent Evelyn Keyes because Judge Keyes will have to resign after four years due to the mandatory retirement age of 75. The main thing about both of these endorsement posts is that they basically like all of the candidates. They have a couple of clear preferences, but no races in which they consider only one candidate qualified. Consider that another piece of evidence to suggest that our oft-maligned system of partisan elections for judges maybe isn’t as bad as its frequently made out to be. My Q&A for Dori Garza is here, and I’ve got Q&As lined up for Jim Peacock and Candance White, so look for them soon.

Appeals Court judge Terry Jennings switches parties

Cool.

Justice Terry Jennings

Justice Terry Jennings

It was just after presiding over a same-sex wedding, in January, that the formerly Republican Justice Terry Jennings, of the Texas First Court of Appeals, started thinking more seriously about changing his party affiliation.

Jennings had been considering becoming a Democrat for years as he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the way the Republican Party had trended toward the fringes, turning “moderate” into a dirty word, he said. And as his children, two daughters in college and a son in high school, continued to ask their dad why he still identified as a Republican, Jennings said the question continued to grow harder to answer.

Then came the wedding.

When others commented to him that deciding to preside over a same-sex wedding was a decision many other Republican judges may not have made, “that’s when I started thinking, Well maybe I’m not in the right party then,” Jennings told the Houston Press in an interview Monday.

The change-over makes him the only Democrat among the nine justices on the First Court of Appeals. Democrats make up just 12 of 73 jurists on the state’s 14 courts of appeal.

Jennings made the formal announcement at the Harris County Democratic Party’s Johnson, Rayburn and Richards fundraising dinner on Saturday evening, saying “today’s Republican Party has chosen a dark path I cannot take.” Elected in 2000 to the First Court of Appeals (which hears Harris County civil cases), Jennings said he was once proud to call himself a member of the Republican Party, and had always considered himself a conservative judge who applied the law just as it was written. Now, however, Jennings says his principles no longer align with those of the GOP.

“It’s just a party I didn’t feel comfortable being a member of anymore,” he told the Press. “You’ve heard the common expression a thousand times: I didn’t leave my party; my party left me. And it’s true.”

I got a blast email from HCDP Chair Lane Lewis about this on Monday. As you know, I’m hoping he’ll have some company on the 1st Court after this election. Whether that happens or not, his term is up in 2018, and as the story notes, he’s not sure if he wants to run for another term. Solving the turnout problem so that this is a question with more than one viable answer would be nice. In the meantime, welcome aboard, Justice Jennings. The Chron has more.

What it will take to win the District Court of Appeals benches

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that one place on the local ballot where Democrats could potentially gain some real ground is with the district Courts of Appeals. There are no competitive Congressional or State Senate races, the one competitive State House race in HD144 would be Democratic-favored in any Presidential year, and the countywide races have a greater dependency on the candidates themselves than any other contest. Republicans have done well in those races even as Democrats were winning district court benches, with the GOP successfully defending the offices of District Attorney and Tax Assessor in 2008 and 2012. The stakes are higher this year with the GOP hoping to keep the Sheriff’s office as well. Those races will get a lot of attention, with the outcomes less likely to be determined by partisan turnout levels.

The judicial races are where the candidates are mostly at the mercy of the blue/red mix. The wild card in those contests are for the 1st and 14th District Courts of Appeals, which encompass more than just Harris County. Jim Sharp broke through in 2008 to become the first (and so far only) Democrat in recent years to claim a spot on these benches, but several other races that year were fairly close, as each of the Democratic candidates carried Harris County. Republicans had a much easier time holding those positions in 2012, but the overall trend as well as the dynamic of this year’s Presidential contest suggests Dems may have a good shot at these. Let’s take a look at the numbers from the last two Presidential years and see if we can take a guess at what would need to happen for that to be the case.


2008

Race         Harris D  Harris R     Diff  Others D  Others R      Diff     Total
================================================================================
14th CJ       568,713   539,696  +29,017   199,332   258,576   -59,244   -30,227
1st Pl3       585,249   526,393  +58,856   209,510   250,194   -40,684   +18,172
1st Pl5       565,338   543,216  +22,122   198,502   259,452   -60,950   -38,828
14th Pl4      561,284   544,873  +16,411   194,751   261,775   -67,024   -50,613
14th Pl6      569,641   536,050  +33,591   198,463   257,779   -59,316   -25,815
14th Pl7      571,737   533,566  +38,173   198,849   257,265   -58,416   -20,245


2012

Race         Harris D  Harris R     Diff  Others D  Others R      Diff     Total
================================================================================
1st Pl2       567,793   572,351   -4,558   194,826   297,572  -102,746  -107,304
1st Pl6       565,699   572,594   -6,895   193,294   298,479  -105,185  -112,080
1st Pl7       565,258   572,326   -7,068   191,908   299,769  -107,861  -114,929
1st Pl8       560,865   575,397  -14,532   191,293   300,076  -108,783  -123,315
1st Pl9       567,466   570,529   -3,063   192,017   299,588  -107,571  -110,634
14th Pl3      580,356   557,224  +23,132   197,511   294,162   -96,551   -73,519
14th Pl4      555,639   580,450  -24,811   188,891   302,216  -113,325  -138,136
14th Pl5      557,972   578,436  -20,464   190,155   300,711  -110,556  -131,020
14th Pl8      575,206   562,417  +13,211   196,161   295,426   -99,265   -86,476

There are a couple of things going on here. The level of Democratic turnout in each year is roughly equivalent. The average dipped from 570,327 in 2008 to 566,250 in 2012, but that’a less than one percent. The Dem totals dropped a bit more in the other counties, falling from an average of 199,901 to 192,895, with the difference being exaggerated a bit by Jim Sharp’s showing in 2008. The bottom line remains that while the average Democratic candidate in these races received about 10,000 fewer votes in 2012, those totals didn’t affect the competitiveness of these races.

What did that were the Republican turnouts, which rose considerably in Harris and in the other counties, though for slightly different reasons. Republican voters in Harris County were far more likely to skip downballot races in 2008 than they were in 2012. It was the same way in 2004, with about ten percent of their Presidential voters disappearing for races like these, while Democratic voters were far more persistent about filling out their ballots. That pattern changed in 2012, with Rs and Ds about equally likely to fill the whole thing in. Some of that is no doubt the effect of straight-ticket voting, but there were still over 400,000 voters in Harris county who didn’t vote straight ticket in 2012. Maybe it was increased partisanship, maybe it was people absorbing the local message to vote all the way down, but whatever the case, it had an effect. As for the other counties, the increases are basically the result of population growth in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria Counties. Put the two together and you can see the effect.

Obviously, that makes winning these races this year a challenge, but I believe it can be done. Republicans have little to no prospect for growth in Harris County, and having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket is more likely to be a drag than an asset. Democrats need to put up a decent margin in Harris County, and they ought to be able to, but that won’t be enough. There needs to be some help in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria for there to be a fighting chance. I don’t know what is going on in those counties to try to boost turnout, though I know Fort Bend Democrats have been pretty active in recent years. I may be the only person in the state obsessing about these races as attainable targets for this year – these are low-visibility contests that have no immediate impact – but they represent an opportunity that we don’t often get, and it’s not like there are a bunch of legitimately exciting legislative or Congressional elections to focus on. The point I’ve been trying to make is that this is a good year to be thinking about other parts of the political bench, which includes county offices and judicial races. Remember, these appellate court positions come with six-year terms, so anyone who wins this year could if they chose run for a statewide bench in 2018 or 2020. There’s no downside to any of this, but we have to be aware of it first.