Tag Archives: retention election

By all means, change the Texas judicial election system!

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has just elevated himself greatly among those of us who detest the way the state elects its judges.

Chief Justice Hecht wants the Legislature to do away with partisan election of judges. He wants a total overhaul of the judicial election system. He has called on merit selection and retention elections to replace the ghastly status quo in which highly qualified judges are tossed aside on a strictly partisan basis.

Hecht has walked this path before. I suppose I just haven’t been paying careful enough attention until now.

To be clear, the chief justice was stung by the loss of key Republican judges in the 2018 midterm election. Appellate courts flipped from GOP to Democratic control, which I guess alarms the Republican chief justice.

Whatever the case, or his motives, I totally support his call for judicial election reform.

Hecht made his remarks in his State of the Judiciary speech. He said, “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

So it happened in 2018. And so it has gotten the attention once again of the state’s top civil appellate court’s chief justice.

I long have bemoaned the partisan election of judges in Texas. I have sought over the course of many years in Texas to get judges and judicial candidates to explain to me the “difference between Democratic and Republican justice.” Not a single one of them ever explained the difference in any fashion that made a lick of sense.

To be clear about another point as well, not all judges want the kind of reform that Hecht has proposed. I remember asking the late state Sen. (and later a Supreme Court justice) Oscar Mauzy of Dallas whether we should go to a form of merit selection for judges. He came unglued. Mauzy, a ferocious, partisan Democrat, said appointing judges was akin to a “communist” system of justice. He loved running as a Democrat and wasn’t about to support any change in the Texas judicial election system.

Texas Republicans long have prospered in these judicial contests. The Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals — the state’s two highest appellate courts — comprise 18 GOP jurists. Thus, to hear a Republican chief justice call once again for this significant judicial reform is, well, the rarest of calls.

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, for trying to pound some sense into the state’s political power structure.

Partisan labels should not elect judges

My wife brought up a subject today that got me fired up. Her question played straight into my wheelhouse, hit me with an issue against which I have been ranting for, oh, many decades.

Partisan election of judges. That’s the issue.

“Isn’t it just wrong to say ‘Wade Overstreet, Republican for judge'”? she asked as we drove past an Overstreet for judge lawn sign.

Yes, it’s wrong. It’s also legal in Texas.

I have not a single thing against Wade Overstreet, who’s running for a judgeship in Potter County. My wife and I are unable to vote in that runoff election, given that we’re registered to vote in Randall County.

I do have plenty of things against the way we elect judges in Texas. My first option would be to go to an appointment process, followed by a retention election. It’s a voting policy used in several other states. The governor appoints a judge, who then stands for retention after a term; voters then get to decide whether to retain the judge or demand that the governor finds someone else.

My second option would be to elect judges on non-partisan ballots. Get rid of Republican and Democratic judges.

I have asked judicial candidates for many years — back in the day when I worked as an opinion journalist in Beaumont and Amarillo — a fundamental question: Can you explain to me the difference between Democratic and Republican justice?

My wife noted with her usual intuitiveness that judges’ jobs are to follow the law, interpret it without regard to politics.

Indeed, one can assess a judge’s judicial philosophy — whether he or she is too harsh or too lenient in bench rulings — without the crutch of a partisan label.

There once was a time when competent Republican judges got the voters’ boot because they were of the “wrong” party in a state that once leaned heavily Democratic. The state flipped from Democrat to Republican about two decades ago. Now we see competent Democratic judges and judicial candidates getting the same treatment from voters who punish them for being members of the wrong party.

It’s wrong. Sadly, it won’t change likely within my lifetime.