Gavel Grab

Changing Election of Texas Judges Gets Frosty Reception From Panel

For years, reformers have talked about removing Texas judges from a straight-ticket party voting process (see Gavel Grab). This week, a bill to do exactly that got a frosty reception in a Texas House Committee, according to the Texas Tribune.

From both parties, critics said that tampering with the ballot could confuse voters and dampen turnout. “I think we should be encouraging people to vote, not discouraging people to vote,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican.

Among reformers who have voiced support for the bill is former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, mentioning the problems he sees with partisan judicial elections: “One of the big problems is that it really confuses the public into thinking there is a material difference in a judge who is a Republican and a judge who is a Democrat,” Jefferson said. “The second, it removes judges from office, not based on how diligent they are, they’re removed just because they’re in the wrong political party.”

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Alabama Chief Justice Moore to Headline Rally in Texas

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was to headline a rally organized by the Conservative Republicans of Texas Monday afternoon, taking a stand against marriage for same-sex couples. Moore made headlines last month when he ordered Alabama probate judges to ignore a federal court ruling that declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The Associated Press reports that the rally was one of several related events taking place in Texas’s capital on Monday. The Coalition of African American Pastors, another anti-marriage equality group, will hold a news conference, while Equality Texas will lobby lawmakers to support equal rights.

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Legal Attacks Launched on TX Judge’s Ordering Marriage License

A Travis County, Texas judge’s ordering  of a marriage license for a same-sex couple has come under legal attack on multiple fronts.

The license was issued last week to a couple that included one member with ovarian cancer. According to the Washington Post, District Judge David Wahlberg ordered the exception, not long after Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman ruled unconstitutional a Texas ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Read more

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Texas and Iowa Face New Marriage Equality Conflicts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is attempting to void the marriage of two women who wed on Thursday after the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses.

KWTX reports that the order did not invalidate the wedding but Paxton said he is looking for other ways to nullify the marriage license. The license was issued under a one-time court order for medical reasons because one of the women has cancer.

“The Texas Supreme Court has stayed two lower court rulings that declared the Texas marriage ban unconstitutional. It is appalling that our elected officials would expend so much legal fire power to stop loving couples from marrying, but this really seems like the last gasp of marriage opponents,” said Rebecca L. Robertson, the legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a proposal has been introduced to amend the Iowa constitution by defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. According to the Sioux City Journal, if adopted, it would nullify a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

The ballot initiative must be passed in two consecutive General Assemblies before it could appear on the 2017 ballot.

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Dark Money Regulation Approved in Texas

texas-state-flag_1_0Dark money groups in Texas may need to start disclosing their anonymous donors, according to an article in San Antonio Express-News. The Texas Ethics Commission unanimously approved a measure for groups to reveal donors if 25 percent or more of its expenditures are politically motivated or if political contributions account for more than 25 percent of its total contributions in a calendar year.

Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring disclosure of donors but it was vetoed by the Governor. For more background see Gavel Grab.

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Reform of Judicial Selection is Studied in Texas

Close to 60 different races will appear on some ballots in Texas on Election Day, reports News 4 San Antonio. Up for election will be justices from both state Supreme Courts, State District and County Judges, and Justices of the Peace, adding up to about 40 judicial contests. And every single race will be decided bytexas court a partisan election.

While 38 states hold some form of judicial election, Texas is one of the few where every judicial office is up for partisan election. The explicit partisanship of judicial elections in Texas results in political coattails that “can be very long and very strong,” News 4 notes.

Critics, among them judges and state lawmakers, have advocated for change. These critics, according to the report, contend that by electing judges, it “turns them into money-grubbing politicians beholden to their donors—who are often the same lawyers who appear in their courtrooms.”

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Should Texas Judges Be Appointed?

Over 70 judicial candidates are running for election in Texas 0n November 4th, reports local Texas news station KSAT 12. However, according to Dr. Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, voters base their decisions on “name, ethnicity, gender or party,” not on qualification.

texas-star-with-ropeFormer Judge Victor Negron claims he lost election twice because he was a Republican in an unsympathetic county. He attributes the current system to a roll of the dice “to see if maybe the lever pullers will select your party for that year.”

Negron advocates a system whereby a nonpartisan panel screens judicial candidates for the governor to appoint, and then the judge would stand for retention after four years. In this way, well-qualified judges are kept in office, but they are still accountable to voters.

“Right now,” Negron says, “poorly informed voters voting along party lines can do bad things to good judges.”

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Three Nominated for Federal Trial Bench in Texas

For the federal trial court in Texas, where judicial vacancies have been described at a “crisis point,” President Obama has nominated three individuals.  The Dallas Morning News said the White House had reached an apparent deal with the state’s Republican U.S. senators.

The  nominees are U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman of San Antonio, Texarkana lawyer Robert Schroeder III, and Sherman Magistrate Judge Amos Mazzant III. Pitman, if confirmed, would become the first openly gay federal judge in Texas.

“Any nominations are critically important, as Texas desperately needs to have as many of its nine district and two circuit vacancies filled,” Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, told the newspaper. “The judges are overwhelmed by crushing case loads and too few judicial resources.” Read more

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Opinion: U.S. Judicial Vacancies in Texas at 'Crisis Point'

Judicial-VacanciesWith eight U.S. district court judgeships vacant in Texas and two more vacancies coming, the ability of sitting federal judges to fulfill their constitutional responsibility is threatened and at “a crisis point,” retired U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson writes in an Austin American-Statesman op-ed.

There are a total of 52 trial court judgeships in the state. Sitting judges are working at a 120 percent capacity to handle their own heavy loads and those of others. With a potential vacancy rate of one out of every five judgeships, the courts are crippled, Judge Furgeson suggests:

“Imagine if the Dallas Mavericks or the San Antonio Spurs or the Houston Rockets played their games with only four players on the court. Things wouldn’t go well. Neither will things go well in our federal courts if these vacancies persist.” Read more

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Article Looks at Texas, Bad Judging, and Possible Reform

Texas State FlagFamily court Judge Denise Pratt of Texas, the subject of numerous complaints and an investigation by local prosecutors, resigned March 28 and suspended her campaign for re-election. Now some Texans are asking whether bad judges are merely a fact of life in a state with partisan judicial elections.

The state’s partisan election system “results in qualified and unqualified candidates getting swept in and out with political cycles,” a Houston Chronicle article said by way of paraphrasing the views of former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, a Republican. (In noting that Texas is one of eight states with partisan judicial elections, and that 14 hold partisan contested elections, the article quoted Justice at Stake.)

An interim legislative committee study of judicial selection in Texas is under way (see Gavel Grab). “We don’t know if it’s going to be taken seriously or not,” Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, told the Chronicle. “I think the concern of reformers over Texas judicial selection process is that we don’t always get the best qualified judges.” Read more

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