Meet Group Working to Remove Politics From Texas Judicial Elections
By Angela Morris
A star-studded group of litigators will lead the Lone Star State’s latest study to eliminate partisanship from judicial elections. But if the effort tracks history, Texas judges will still have an “R” or “D” next to their name on the ballot.
This week, the state’s top politicians named a 15-person Texas Commission on Judicial Selection, which will be studying alternative methods of judicial selection, and preparing a report for the Texas Legislature by the end of 2020. Based on the study, lawmakers would have to pass a proposed constitutional amendment, the governor would have to sign it, and voters would have to approve it to make the change effective.
Bills to change how Texas elects its judges failed to pass the legislature eight times since 1993, and nothing came of a 2014 study to consider the issue again. Optimistically, supporters say there’s a chance it will turn out different this time.
“In the past, we’ve never really had a governor who’s willing to support anything along this line,” said Beck Redden partner David Beck of Houston, named commission chairman by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Oct. 28. “Here, is a situation, we have a governor willing to say, ‘Look, we’ve got a serious problem.’”
Abbott took to Twitter to express his support for reform early this year, writing, “Texas must evaluate the importance of an independent judiciary free from politics. We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”
The governor’s support could make a difference, said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.
“Gov. Abbott is the first governor in Texas history to support changes to judicial selection publicly,” he noted.
Voters may misunderstand what it means to take partisanship out of judiciary races, thinking it eliminates their ability to vote, Hecht said. But other methods of judicial selection still let them cast a ballot, just without party affiliation, he explained.
“Sometimes people are told that this is trying to move judges away from accountability, but that’s not the intent of it,” he said. “To be elected on a partisan ballot, you’ve got to campaign; you’ve got to raise money. I’ve never known a judge who thought it was a good idea to go out and raise money.”
The harm of partisan sweeps that eliminate qualified jurists was one reason that the Texans for Lawsuit Reform Foundation came out against partisan judge elections in a recent paper, “Evaluating Judicial Selection In Texas: A Comparative Study of State Judicial Selection Methods.”
Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a powerful tort reform lobbying group, and the bills it supports often end up passing the Texas Legislature.
“For many years we have recognized that partisan election of judges is disruptive to the legal system, disheartening to judges and disconcerting to citizens,” said TLR spokeswoman Lucy Nashed in an email. “TLR will actively support the Judicial Selection Commission’s work to determine if there is a better way to select our judges.”