Judge Ed Spillane, presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association, sums up the issue this way in a Washington Post commentary:
“In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay. There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.”
After GOP primary voting on Tuesday, two of three races for the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals appeared to be headed for runoff votes, while three Republican incumbents seeking a new term on the Texas Supreme Court (handling civil cases) appeared headed for primary wins and safe seats in November.
The Dallas Morning News, The Texas Tribune and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had news articles about the primary voting. According to the latter, Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann appeared to be poised to capture the nomination for Place 3 on the Texas Supreme Court over appellate Judge Michael Massengale, whose campaign took the unusual step in such a race of spending more than $300,000 on TV advertising; Lerhmann’s backers included Gov. Greg Abbott.
A race for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters, is spilling over with so many personal and political attacks that it seems highly and transparently politicized, The Houston Chronicle reports. The article is headlined, “Candidates cite politics as key to criminal court race.”
The incumbent, Judge Larry Meyers, is the only Democratic statewide official standing in the entire state. Three Republicans are running to oppose him: District Court Judges Mary Lou Keel, Ray Wheless and Chris Oldner. Some of the attacks: the Democrat likens the GOP to the “Donner Party”; Keel calls Wheless “deceptive and inaccurate” and “pandering,” and Oldner portrays him as “somebody who just regurgitates tea party lines”; Wheless says of the others, “I am the recognized conservative in the race, and that is why Judge Oldner and Judge Keel can’t get any conservatives.”
Criminal defense attorney Dick DeGuerin called the court “dysfunctional,” with some members hating each other. “It’s a combination of personalities and the political aspect of it,” DeGuerin added. “Unfortunately, it’s more pandering for the votes than it is running on a platform of being fair and upholding the law.” Read more
A recent article by the Texas Tribune reports that a large number of mostly middle class Texans fall into a “justice gap” where they aren’t poor enough to receive free legal aid provided to indigents but can’t afford basic legal services on their own.
The article reports that the state’s highest civil court launched a new commission to identify and assist Texans who have fallen into the “justice gap.” “The 18-member Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services, led by former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, will spend the next year gathering data and coming up with recommendations to be presented in November 2016.”
In interview with the Tribune, Jefferson said, “one of the most famous phrases in American law is liberty and justice for all — it is part of our culture, it is part of our custom, it is part of the fabric of our democracy…one of the biggest challenges today is to make that phrase a promise and to make that promise a reality.”
“Today, even most lawyers cannot afford to retain another lawyer to represent them in civil legal disputes,” Jefferson said. “This is a crisis for the legal profession and for our state.”
In Texas, an individual described by law enforcement authorities as a person of interest in an attack on a judge at her home was charged with murder in a separate, unrelated crime, the Austin American-Statesman said.
Travis County Judge Julie Kocurek was shot at and left for dead in the driveway of her home on Friday night (see Gavel Grab). She survived and was being treated at a hospital.
In related coverage, KVUE.com reported, “Judicial community devastated by judge’s shooting.” The attack was causing some to consider the security of judges elsewhere. “Security for Brazos County judges doesn’t extend beyond the courthouse,” said a KAGS News headline.
Travis County, Texas Judge Julie Kocurek was shot at and left for dead in the driveway of her home on Friday night. CNN reported that colleagues cannot help but wonder if she was targeted for her work.
“The idea that you would be ambushed or attacked in your home for the work that you do was just mind-boggling to me,” Travis County Administrative Judge Lora Livingston said.
The Austin American-Statesman reported the judge’s injuries came from shrapnel and glass, after the car in which she was an occupant stopped because an obstacle, a trash can or garbage bag, had been placed in the driveway and was blocking it. She was being treated at a hospital. The newspaper said the attack was “what Austin police investigators believe was an assassination attempt in connection to her work.”
To bring sunlight to political “dark money,” the Texas Ethics Commission has passed a rule to adapt to the greater role now played by politically active nonprofit groups and anonymous contributors.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the rule provides that “communications from a group like a 501(c)4 nonprofit will qualify as a political expenditure if it is distributed within 30 days of an election and is ‘susceptible to no other reasonable interpretation than to urge the passage or defeat’ of a candidate or a ballot measure.”
Some critics said the rule is too broad and exceeds what courts have generally permitted. But at mySanAntonio.com, O. Ricardo Pimentel wrote, “Bravo to the Texas Ethics Commission for acting. Legal challenges may very well come. Texans should recognize them for what they are — advocacy that folks still be able to lurk in those political shadows.”
The Associated Press addresses the issue with an article titled, “Wheels of Justice Slow at Overloaded Federal Courts.” The AP cites the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the rising delay in resolving civil and criminal cases because of judges’ ever-increasing workload.
The article says that the challenges are “particularly acute” in some federal courts where the judges deal with double the workload of the national average, like in the Eastern Districts of California and Texas.
Not only has the Eastern District of California had a judicial vacancy for almost three years, the article says, but the court has not had an increase in judges since 1978, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The AP reports that California’s Eastern District in Fresno is currently sustained by only one full-time district court judge, Lawrence O’Neill. The situation in the Eastern District of Texas is similar, the AP says.
According to the article, Judge O’Neill says, “We can slow things down because we simply can’t work any harder or faster… But the real important effect of that is people who need our help to move their lives forward are delayed.”
Matt Menendez, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice finds the judicial vacancies that the federal courts are facing today to be “quite bad.” The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.
Legal scholars say, “Congress needs to fill judicial vacancies more quickly but also increase the number of judges in some districts — both issues that get bogged down in partisan political fights over judicial nominees,” according to the AP.
A Texas political reporter, in reminding his readers that state Supreme Court justices are elected officials, found it useful to quote then-Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson about his advocacy for a merit-based selection system to replace the elections.
“We should adopt a system for judges that has two primary components. Judges should achieve office by merit rather than whim, and voters should hold judges accountable, based on their records, through subsequent retention elections,” Jefferson said in 2009, according to the Houston Chronicle commentary by Bobby Cervantes. “When a judge’s victory is based on party over principle, money over merit, cynicism over the rule of law, voters lose.” Read more
With another federal judge announcing his retirement and the state’s two Republican senators playing politics with a Democratic president, Texas “has become the epicenter of a growing judicial vacancy crisis,” a Fort Worth Star-Telegram op-ed says.
Natalie Knight of the Alliance for Justice wrote the op-ed, which is headlined, “Texas judicial vacancy flood means [Sens.] Cornyn, Cruz must act.” There are nine vacant federal judgeships in the state, and three of them have been unoccupied for more than three years. Seven have been formally deemed “judicial emergencies.”
“[John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz have a choice: Let the Texas vacancy crisis grow even worse, or start looking for the judges Texans desperately need,” Knight contends.