When the first Republican ever elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided in 2013 to switch parties after 20 years on the bench, the move made national news. Now as the only Democratic statewide official in Texas, Judge Larry Meyers is anticipating a losing battle.
“Oh, not real good,” the 68-year-old said this week, mulling his chances of retaining his seat. His smile-lined eyes unfocused for a second, before he laughed heartily, “Who knows? We might have some luck in the fall.”
Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, but having an “R” after your name is not enough anymore here, where the tea party continues its five-year surge of influence. Even incumbents once considered dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are now routinely accused of being “Republicans in name only.”
Infighting among Texas’ Republicans has been less pronounced in the judicial races here, however, with candidates focusing more on performance than endorsements. Not so in this year’s fight for “place 2” on the state’s highest criminal court. Like every other race in Texas this primary season, it too has derailed into a battle over the candidates’ conservative bona fides, a fight that encompasses everyone from Attorney General Ken Paxton to the candidates’ spouses.
Meyers and the three Republicans vying to unseat him all acknowledge it’s just politics. But what they can’t agree on is whether it should be for this court, which, in the most real sense, decides who lives and who dies, who spends life in prison and who walks free.
While judicial campaigns are usually more staid, the vitriol has been flying between the Republicans vying to unseat Meyers. Three will face off in the March 1 primary.
Harris County District Court Judge Mary Lou Keel, a former assistant district attorney who has served on the court for 21 years, has little negative to say about her opponent Collin County District Judge Chris Oldner. Oldner, too, acknowledged, “I don’t have anything bad to say about Mary Lou Keel, I really don’t.”
Their target? Oldner’s colleague on the Collin County District Court, Ray Wheless.
The two north Texas judges sit on either side of the Ken Paxton prosecution. Wheless, a long-time friend and donor to the first-term current attorney general, has been critical of the grand jury process that led to Paxton’s indictment last July.
Oldner, meanwhile, presided over that grand jury. While he has said he has nothing against Paxton, Oldner said the attorney general’s supporters have actively worked to try to push him out of public service. He was accused by Paxton’s lawyers of mishandling the grand jury process – an allegation dismissed by the presiding judge – and now finds himself in a race with a colleague he considers part of the dangerous politicization of the bench.
“If you want somebody who just regurgitates tea party lines, well, then, Ray’s your man,” said Oldner, who was appointed to the district court by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2003. “But if you want somebody that’s actually living the mantra of the rule of law, personal responsibility, then you look at Mary Lou Keel and myself.”
Keel, who said she has had multiple “run-ins” with Wheless on the campaign trail, simply said, “I find him deceptive and inaccurate.”
Wheless said he’s become the target of criticisms for an obvious reason: he’s the man to beat.
“There’s a reason that the conservatives in Texas are endorsing me,” he said, before listing off nods from Texas Right to Life, the Texas Eagle Forum and Liberty Institute’s Kelly Shackelford. “I am the recognized conservative in the race, and that is why Judge Oldner and Judge Keel can’t get any conservatives.”
Read the whole thing, it’s quite well done. It gives the first real insight I’ve seen as to why Justice Meyers changed parties; given that’s he’s filed a lawsuit against the voter ID law, I can believe that was a breaking point for him. I’m glad to have him on our side, and I wish more people would do the same, but I don’t really consider him a poster child for our cause. His rulings on the CCA are all over the map, too often on what I see as the wrong side of the issue in question. It’s not worth worrying about at this point, but it’s something to keep in mind.
As for the GOP side of things, it’s the same old story where the word “conservative” has lost all meaning in the endless tribal war, and qualifications don’t count. I haven’t been around long enough to say with any authority how all of this resembles the state of the Democratic Party in Texas in the 1970s, but I have to believe that there’s a crackup coming. A party can only exclude so many people for so long before they define themselves down to a minority. As far as that goes, what we need is more people like Larry Meyers to say “enough” and bail out. How long that will take, I have no idea. I may not live long enough to see it. But I believe it’s coming. In the meantime, read the story, and root for Raymond Wheless to lose.