To Elect Or Not Elect State Judges; Lt. Gov. Patrick Surprised That’s Even A Question

Surprised” was how Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has termed a movement to remove statewide judges from ballots.

A proposal to have appellate judges appointed rather than elected has picked up steam in recent years, particularly after a high-profile Democratic sweep of courts in 2018.

Patrick’s statement followed the first official meeting of the newly formed Texas Commission on Judicial Selection. The commission has a goal of submitting a report on the pros and cons of electing judges, along with recommendations, by the end of 2020.

“Texans feel strongly about voting for their judges,” Lt. Gov. Patrick said in a statement following the commission’s inaugural meeting. “The commission will need to make a compelling argument to the people and legislators to change the current system. I do not believe that support exists today.”

There are two camps of thought on judicial elections in Texas.

The first is that by electing judges, not only does it serve as public education as to who certain state justices actually are, but it keeps a check on partisan control of the state judiciary.

The second is that judges and their decisions should not be subject to the waxing and waning of public opinion, nor spend their time campaigning for re-election in what are often name-recognition campaigns.

The Texas Republican platform calls for direct election of state judges, and that would also seem to be the default position of state Democrats.

The process of election state judges in Texas came about after Civil War Reconstruction. Southern Democrats were upset with the placing (often by force) of Republican state officials in key positions, so subjecting them to the will of the people kept the benches in Democratic Party hands for over a century.

While Texas as a whole flipped Republican in the early-to-mid-‘1990s, Democrats still have their moments, particularly when its grassroots activists are upset with a Republican White House occupant. In 2018, Democrats flipped four of the 14 state appeals courts — in all replacing 19 Republican judges.

State appeals courts are in between a complex structure of lower trial courts and the twin supreme courts, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court.

The Texas Commission on Judicial Selection consists of 15 members. Four members are appointed each by the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker of the House with one appointment each by the Supreme Court of Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the State Bar of Texas.

The members of the commission are David Beck (chairman); Sens. Brian Birdwell, Joan Huffman, Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Chuy Hinojosa; Reps. Todd Hunter, Brooks Landgraf Ina Minjarez, Carl Sherman; and citizen members Chip Babcock, Martha Hill Jamison, former Texas Suprme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, Lynne Liberato, David Oliveira, and Thomas Phillips, in addition to Chairman Beck.

The next meeting is Feb. 11.

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