Herman: For down-ballot candidates, it helps to have catchy names
By Ken Herman
OK, you’ve got a few more days of holiday fa la la and folderol. Then it’ll be time to confront your civic responsibilities of 2020, a year in which we’ll pick everything from a president to presiding judges.
Which brings us to Judge Dimple.
Odds are good you don’t know her. But odds are equally good you’ve seen her roadside campaign signs among those cropping up as the landscape morphs from festive holiday decorations to highway-unbeautifying political signage.
The campaign sign business is simple: catchy name, catchy typeface, catchy catchphrase, anything that can catch the eye in the fleeting glimpse of a passerby.
Judge Dimple came up with, “It’s simple. Keep Dimple.” Maybe it’ll store on the hard drive in your head and pop up in March as you’re wading into the never-never-heard-of-land of down-ballot races you know nothing about, like the Travis County Court-at-Law No. 4 race.
Mike Denton presided in that court until he resigned in September to run for county attorney, leaving it to Travis County commissioners to appoint a replacement to serve until the 2020 election.
That’s how we got Judge Dimple, an appointed judge who now wants to be an elected judge. She has a great, very American life story. She also has a last name. She is Judge Dimple Malhotra. You probably don’t know if she’s a good judge, unless, of course, you’ve appeared in her court, which I hope you haven’t because it deals in the horrific world of family violence.
Her campaign website, judgedimple.com, tells us Malhotra was born in New Delhi, India. Her mother, a nurse, moved to Dallas. Dimple and her dad followed in 1974. Dimple earned undergrad and law degrees from the University of Texas. She’s married and has two sons.
Before the judicial appointment, she was chief prosecutor for the family violence unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office. She previously worked in the county attorney’s office for 10 years.
“She is the only candidate who has dedicated her career to domestic violence issues,” it says on her website. “For this specialized court, experience matters.”
Yes, it does. But name ID matters more in getting elected to this court. Which brings us to today’s attempted point, made with the help of, but no disrespect to, Judge Dimple.
All judges in Texas (save for municipal courts) are elected. In reality, however, many, especially at the appellate levels, initially get to the bench via gubernatorial appointment to fill vacancies. Six of the nine Texas Supreme Court justices initially got there that way.
Locally, two other Democrats and no Republicans are seeking the bench now held by Judge Dimple. In the March 3 Democratic primary, she faces Margaret Chen Kercher, whose website, margaretforjudge.com, tells us she’s “a local criminal defense attorney, community leader and proud daughter of immigrants. … For the last decade, Margaret has defended individuals accused of felony and misdemeanor criminal offenses.”
She’s married to her college sweetheart and has three kids and a dog.
The other Democrat on the ballot is Tanisa Jeffers, a lawyer who serves as an associate judge in Austin Municipal Court. Jeffers, who is a mother and also earned a law degree from UT, says on her campaign website, judgejeffers.com, that Travis County Court-at-Law No. 4 “needs a judge who will seek to rehabilitate offenders who suffer from drug addiction and mental health issues, not just place them in overcrowded jails; who will implement a diversionary court for first-time offenders, parent-child cases, and cases concerning mental illness or substance abuse; and who will provide much-needed perspective as the only African American Judicial candidate of Travis County in 2019 who has handled a full range of criminal cases.”
The three Democratic candidates were among four finalists considered by Travis County commissioners for this bench when Denton resigned. It’s your duty to do your due diligence and vote for the one you think will serve us best in Travis County Court-at-Law No. 4.
You should do that, but the likely reality is that your life is busy, you’ve never heard of Travis County Court-at-Law No. 4 and you feel ill-equipped to judge the contenders.
For now, however, this is the best we can do. Earlier this year, in his State of the Judiciary speech, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said the way we pick judges in this state is “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”
“Make no mistake,” Hecht told lawmakers. “A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”
I’m not really sure I know what that means, but it doesn’t sound good. Hecht favors nonpartisan judicial elections, as opposed to the current partisan system he says is such a mess.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who once served on the Texas Supreme Court (initially as an appointee of then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1995), seems to agree the status quo isn’t working.
“Texas must evaluate the importance of an independent judiciary free from politics,” Abbott tweeted last February. “We need judges devoted to the Constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”
This, of course, came in the wake of 2018 political winds that swept some GOP judges out of office as a result of straight-ticket voting, a process the 2019 Legislature killed off as of next year.
The Legislature approved House Bill 3040 establishing a 15-member Texas Commission on Judicial Selection that will report back for the 2021 legislative session.
HB 3040 directs the commission to study all alternatives, including election and appointment or some combination thereof. It’s a topic in good standing in the perennial issue club, which means this latest effort is in the Department of Here We Go Again.
Here’s hoping this leads to a robust discussion and something better than the current system.
But for now, if you vote in Travis County, it’s time to start deciding whether it’s as simple as voting to keep Dimple.