The Chron knocks out its appellate court endorsements in one piece.
1st Court of Appeals, Chief Justice: Julie Countiss
The current chief justice of the 1st Court of Appeals, who is stepping down, is Sherry Radack, a Republican who has served on the court since 2002. (Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack is her husband.)
Voters are choosing between qualified candidates from each major party as well as a seasoned independent vying to take on the role of administering the court. We believe Justice Julie Countiss, who serves on this court now, has the edge because Radack has begun showing her the ropes of being the court’s administrator.
Elected in 2018 as part of the Democratic sweep, Countiss, 51, has two more years left in her term. If she wins this election, the Texas governor would appoint a replacement for her current place on a court that currently has seven Democrats and two Republicans. Prior to becoming a justice, Countiss was a lawyer with the Harris County Attorney’s Office and focused on ridding the county of illicit, dangerous businesses. With four years appellate experience now, Countiss praised the collegial culture of the court under Radack’s leadership and said she seeks to continue it.
1st Court of Appeals, Place 4: April Farris
Justice April Farris, 37, was appointed to the 1st Court of Appeals by Abbott in 2021. A Republican, she graduated from Abilene Christian University and Harvard Law School, and clerked on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as one of the most conservative in the country, for Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod. As an appellate lawyer for a private firm she represented large companies including ExxonMobil and Uber. Farris then worked for the Texas Solicitor General’s Office representing the state. Her experience includes both civil and criminal cases. She is well-regarded on a court with seven Democrats, and her conservative background likely adds rigor to the court’s process.
Judge Mike Engelhart, 52, is a Democrat and has presided over the 151st Civil District Court in Harris County since 2008. He argues that the 1st Court of Appeals needs more justices with experience serving as a trial court judge. He was the civil administrative judge when Hurricane Harvey hit and helped the criminal-court judges when their building was damaged by the storm, managing the compromises and accommodations to host 23 additional courts.
14th Court of Appeals, Place 2: Cheri Thomas
The Republican incumbent, Justice Kevin Jewell, said he is the first to arrive at the courthouse in the mornings. Not only does he move through his cases with efficiency, he credits his leadership with making the court as a whole more timely. He helped implement a policy change that rewards staff attorneys with bonuses based on productivity. When the district courts are struggling with a massive backlog of cases, we like to hear about hardworking judges and efficient dockets. Appeals courts, however, are more deliberative than the trial courts.
We are concerned that the 14th Court of Appeals is known for fractiousness, not collegiality. That’s in contrast to the 1st Court of Appeals where candidates and others familiar with it told us that justices get along well across party lines. Should that be important to voters? After all, wouldn’t lively debate make for a better court? Cases are initially heard by panels of three justices who attempt to come to a consensus. There are split votes, and sometimes a case is heard by all the justices. A good process involves both debate as well as consensus building.
The Democratic challenger, Cheri Thomas, 42, said she was the first in her family to attend college. In 2020, the board recommended Thomas in a primary runoff for Place 7 of this court for her “solid reputation among other lawyers” and the experience she had as staff attorney for this court of appeals. Thomas is an honors graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and a former clerk for U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis. She worked in civil litigation for Baker Botts and the Stuart law firm, where she became a partner. Thomas worked as an appellate attorney at the Texas Workforce Commission.
14th Court of Appeals, Place 9: Randy Wilson
The challenger in this race, Democrat William Demond, 45, earned an enthusiastic endorsement from the board during the primary earlier this year. As an attorney, he has helped establish constitutional rights twice in cases before the 5th Circuit. One of them established a right to film police officers. He’s been inducted in the Texas Lawyer’s Verdicts Hall of Fame. Demond was appointed by a federal judge to represent Harris County inmates in cases concerning their conditions of confinement during the COVID pandemic.
Justice Randy Wilson, 70, was appointed a state district civil court judge in Harris County in 2003 and served as a Republican for roughly 16 years. Wilson was highly respected. Despite our urging against straight-ticket voting in 2018, he was swept out with other Republican judges. Our feelings haven’t changed. Wilson is still a straight-shooter and knows the law and has the respect of the lawyers who argue before him. He was appointed to the 14th Court of Appeals by Abbott in December 2020.
I have Q&As with Julie Countiss, Mike Engelhart, and from the primaries Cheri Thomas; I also have one with Ted Wood. The Chron doesn’t have anything bad to say about any of the candidates, which won’t stop the usual complaints about partisan judicial elections if Democrats sweep (somehow, those same complaints weren’t coming up when Republicans were winning all these races). I personally see “clerked for Jennifer Elrod” as a huge red flag, since she was out there trying her best to overrule Roe v Wade before SCOTUS got around to it. The reason why the Fifth Circuit is viewed as “one of the most conservative courts” in the country (which is both a misstatement and an understatement, but is generally the formulation we get) is precisely because of radicals like Jennifer Elrod. That doesn’t mean that one of her former clerks can’t be a decent judge, but the burden of proof for that is very much on them. They get no benefit of the doubt from me.