Courts and Judges
Our legal system cannot function without competent, fair and honest judges to interpret and apply the laws. With more than 3,300 judges serving on courts across Texas, it is critical that we continue to improve the quality and stability of our judiciary, and ensure that those who are elected to the bench are principled and fair.
To address this need, the Legislature has passed a number of measures over the years:
2019: Addressing the Way Texas Selects its Judges
Texas is one of only a few states that elects its judges. Because there are often so many judges on the ballot and because these are often lower-profile election contests, many Texans simply don’t have enough knowledge about the candidates for judicial office to make informed decisions. Many voters cast their votes for judges based on party affiliation or name recognition, since they have no knowledge of the relative merits of the candidates.
Historically, this has led to groups of long-serving, competent, experienced judges being swept out of office based on nothing other than partisan affiliation. These sweeps create debilitating instability in our legal system, which has serious consequences for the rule of law and confidence in our courts.In 2019, the Legislature passed House Bill 3040, creating the Judicial Selection Commission to study how the state selects its judges. The commission is comprised of 15 members: four appointed by the governor, four appointed by the lieutenant governor, four appointed by the speaker, and one each appointed by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the board of directors of the State Bar of Texas.
2017: Judicial Petition Signatures for Ballot
For many years, judicial candidates in Texas were required to obtain signatures on a petition in order to be listed on the ballot. This helped ensure that those who filed for judicial offices were serious, qualified candidates rather than candidates who simply had a popular name but no experience. The petition requirement, however, was removed by an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill during the 2015 legislative session. Senate Bill 44 was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, reinstating the requirement that candidates for judicial office obtain petition signatures to secure a place on the ballot.
2017: Straight-Party Voting
Historically, Texas has allowed one-punch straight-party voting in general elections. Straight-ticket voting, however, has contributed to “sweeps” in some metropolitan counties in which highly qualified judges of both major political parties are swept out of office and replaced by judges who sometimes have no real experience and only the barest of qualifications. Many honest, hard-working Texas judges have been defeated for reelection for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, performance or character. These partisan sweeps create instability in the courts, keep highly qualified attorneys from seeking judicial office and impede the fair and efficient administration of justice. To help address this issue, in 2017 the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 25, which eliminated one-punch straight-ticket voting in Texas.
2017: Court Security
In November 2015, a state district judge was shot outside her home in Austin by a criminal defendant in the judge’s court. The shooting made clear that security for Texas’ judges was inadequate. In 2017, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 42, a court security bill, allowing state and local policymakers to take steps toward providing Texas judges and court personnel with improved security.
1995, 2019: Judicial Campaign Finance Reform
Most Texas judges are elected. (Only municipal court judges are appointed, and they handle only misdemeanor criminal cases.) Of course, electing judges means judicial candidates must run political campaigns that include fundraising. Realistically, the most likely donor to a judicial campaign is an attorney who is familiar with the judge. Consequently, many judicial campaign contributions come from attorneys who have appeared before a given judge.
The majority of Texans are concerned that campaign contributions to judicial candidates by attorneys could affect the outcome of cases. This perception is enhanced by the fact that before 1995, Texas allowed unlimited contributions to judicial candidates.
In 1995, the Texas Legislature passed the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act (Senate Bill 94), which:
- imposes limits on the amount of funds any individual, law firm or political action committee can give to a judicial candidate;
- provides that judicial candidates can choose to comply with limits on the total amount of their campaign expenditures; and
- requires detailed reporting of contributions and expenditures.
Over time, it became clear that the law as written in 1995 was ambiguous in some places, and likely unconstitutional in others. It was confusing to donors who were simply trying to comply with the law. To address this, the Legislature passed House Bill 3233 in 2019, which amends the law to address some of the ambiguities and delete the parts that are unconstitutional, while preserving the protections that ensure judicial campaigns are conducted fairly and ethically.
See also Attorneys