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.
The Texas Tweeter Laureate is … a judge. Yes, you read that correctly. And in an intriguing Washington Times op-ed, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett shows flashes of the humor and succinctness that are part of his social media effort to demystify our courts:
- “People know far more about American Idol judges than judges.”
- “I’m probably the most avid social-media judge in America—which is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz. It’s a bar so low it’s subterranean. But apparently I’m part of the Twitterati (think Illuminati, but with gavels).”
- “People are genuinely amazed that a nerdy judge can be engaging, and believe me, my geekery is on an uber-elite level. But it’s rare for a Supreme Court Justice to step out from behind the bench and demystify things.”
- “If you’re a Texas Supreme Court Justice hopscotching across 254 counties, trying to tattoo your name onto the noggins of millions of voters, you must find creative ways to raise visibility and build awareness. Twitter, Facebook, etc. are low-cost but high-yield ways to leverage the support of key influencers and opinion leaders. Bottom line: It’s political malpractice not to engage people smartly via social media.”
Public confidence in our courts is eroded when judicial candidates raise campaign cash from litigants and lawyers, former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson told Justice at Stake’s 2015 Fair Courts State Summit in a keynote address on Thursday.
Jefferson, the Texas court’s first African-American judge and first African-American chief justice, is an ardent champion of merit selection. Recounting his firsthand experience in Texas, he told the Summit attendees why he believes reform is necessary and also why it is hard to achieve.
After describing a Texas system whereby many judges win office on a straight-ticket partisan vote, he said the top qualifications to win election are party affiliation, the “sound of your name” and “how much money you can raise. And what is so disheartening about that is it has nothing to do with qualification and merit.”
“Another very fundamental problem,” he continued, “is that the public … thinks that if you’re accepting money from a litigant or lawyer, you are going to back that litigant or lawyer in your judicial ruling. And so the confidence in a fair and impartial system of justice goes away just by the very practice that you have in Texas and many many other states, even increasingly in states where judges are elected in retention elections.” Read more
Legislation to require politically active nonprofit groups to disclose their donors was declared dead in the Texas legislature, The Texas Tribune reported.
“The Legislature gets a ‘F’ on ethics reform this session. The bills they passed largely protect the politicians and limit disclosure of information,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a Justice at Stake partner organization.
The Texas Tribune subsequently reported in a different article about Gov. Greg Abbott’s news conference following the conclusion of the legislative session, “Abbott Opposes Curbs on Dark Money.” Read more
An article in the Texas Tribune on Friday analyzed the prudence of electing judges in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, which upheld a state’s right to restrict the fundraising activities of judicial candidates.
This fundraising “smells just fine in the civics textbooks,” the article editorializes, “but in practice, it can carry a strong scent, especially in judicial races.” Former Chief Justices Wallace Jefferson and Tom Phillips agree, as they wrote in an amicus brief for Williams-Yulee. “As former Chief Justices who have observed countless elections in our own States, and run as candidates for judicial office, we are well-acquainted with the genuine dangers — and sometimes actual abuse — present when judicial candidates personally solicit campaign contributions from parties and lawyers,” they wrote. Two former Alabama chiefs, including Sue Bell Cobb, a crusader against judicial elections, joined the brief.
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded a trial judge, Michael Thomas Seiler, in part because the judge decried the “psychopaths” who appear before him in court. Judge Seiler was talking to a Texas Patriot PAC audience, and he also held up a photo of Hannibal Lecter, a fictional serial killer in the “Silence of the Lambs” movie.
According to an ABA Journal article, the commission said the judge’s remarks “could cause reasonable observers to perceive he would not be fair and impartial while presiding in … civil commitment proceedings.” It also said he was “impatient, discourteous and undignified” in statements to attorneys representing sex offenders. Read more
Two bills under debate in the Texas legislature would make public the names of judges who grant minors permissions to have abortions, a step that critics say represents bullying judges and potentially threatening their safety.
“Texas is the first state in recent memory to consider naming the judges who rule on [these so-called judicial] bypass cases,” Mother Jones reported, although similar legislation was considered there several years ago. At that time, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch cautioned that naming judges could endanger them and their families at the hands of angry parents or anti-abortion extremists.
This year, Susan Hays, an attorney with the nonprofit group Jane’s Due Process, said the bills are intended to punish judges and discourage them from participating in judicial bypass proceedings. Read more
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.”
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.