Finding a Better Way
Texas is facing a fundamental question: should Texans continue to elect judges, or is it time to move to a different method?
Last session, the Texas Legislature created the 15-member Texas Commission on Judicial Selection with the express purpose of answering that question. With last week’s appointments to the commission by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, the state is poised to take a close look at how we fill seats on our judiciary.
The 12 appointed commissioners join Wallace B. Jefferson, Thomas R. Phillips and Lynne Liberato, who were appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and State Bar of Texas.
To put things into perspective as the commission begins to undertake its work, we thought it might be helpful to look at some numbers.
Considering the state as a whole, Texans elect (or help elect) 39 federal officials—the president, two U.S. senators, and 36 members of Congress. Of course, not all of these offices are on the ballot each election year.
At the same time, Texans elect 204 state executive and legislative branch officers—the governor, lieutenant governor, 31 state senators, 150 state House members, and others.
But then there is the judiciary.
Texans elect a whopping 1,898 judges—98 appellate court judges and 1,800 trial court judges. We vote on nine times more judges than other state officials, and 48 times more judges than federal officials.
In any given election cycle, a voter in one of Texas’ major metropolitan areas is likely to be overwhelmed by the number of judges on the ballot. For example, in 2018, a Travis County voter would have cast ballots in elections for two federal offices (U.S. Senate and U.S. House), seven state executive offices (governor, lieutenant governor, etc.), two state legislative offices (state senator and House member), four county offices (county clerk, etc.), and 28 judicial offices.
Travis County seems almost manageable compared to what voters in Harris County encountered in November 2018. A Harris County voter was expected to pick among the candidates in 75 judicial races.
The problem of electing judges is exacerbated by the fact that judges are limited in the amount of money they can raise to run a political campaign (more on that in another blog post), so their resources for communicating with Texas voters are limited. For example, a person running for election to the Court of Criminal Appeals—a statewide judicial office that makes life or death decisions—has to communicate with more than 15.7 million registered voters. This is daunting even without judicial campaign finance limitations.
The men and women who serve on our courts make critical decisions that affect our economy, our constitutional rights, our kids’ schools and our public safety, among other things. Yet even the most informed citizen cannot hope to know much about the judges we elect in Texas. Isn’t it time for Texans to consider whether there is a better way to select judges?
For many years we have recognized that partisan election of judges is disruptive to the legal system, disheartening to judges and disconcerting to citizens. It now is a priority for us. TLR is committed to supporting the Commission on Judicial Selection’s important work. To that end, the TLR Foundation recently published a paper about judicial selection in Texas and other states that we hope will provide critical data to Texas policymakers as they consider this important issue.