Overhauling How Judges are Selected Long Overdue
Texas needs a new method of selecting judges.
Texas is one of only six states in the country that holds partisan judicial elections. With more than 1,000 elected judges at all levels of the judiciary, it is often difficult for voters to make informed decisions about these races. As a result, many decisions in judicial races are based on party affiliation position on the ballot or a candidate’s name. This has led to partisan sweeps in recent years, with many talented judges in both major parties losing at the ballot.
In his State of the Judiciary speech early last year, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht declared the way the state picks judges is “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”
We agree and look forward to the work of the newly appointed 15-member Texas Commission on Judicial Selection. The group, which includes Bexar County State Rep. Ina Minjarez, has been tasked with reviewing the way Texas judges are elected and making recommendations for reform before the 2021 legislative session.
It is a mammoth undertaking that has been long overdue. Regrettably, the lack of political fortitude to tackle this issue has only maintained the status quo.
Changing the way judges are selected will require amending the Texas Constitution, which means a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature will have to agree to place it on the ballot.
As we mentioned earlier, partisan elections have produced repeated sweeps at polls, and the election of judges based solely on party affiliation, rather than experience, temperament and talent. In Bexar County, many experienced, quality judges have lost elections to candidates with minimal legal experience.
But it’s not just a Bexar County issue, it’s statewide. Texas has just over 1,065 elected judges. In January 2019, when the most recently elected judges took the bench, there were 443 new judges. That is a high rate of turnover for such important jobs, and it creates inconsistency in practices and sometimes requires a bit of learning on the job.
Judicial jobs used to go to well-respected members of the legal profession who had spent time in the trenches, paid their dues, and gained the experience and wisdom that comes with decades on the job. Regrettably, many candidates now view filing for the judiciary as nothing more than a lottery for a well-paying job. They invest little in their campaigns. It’s a low-risk and high-reward effort: a well-paying job with little oversight.
This lack of oversight has been a big problem in Bexar County. While county commissioners fund court operations, they have no say in how judges run their courtrooms or spend their days. In recent years, there have been serious work ethic issues among some of the newer members of the Bexar County judiciary who consider a few hours at the courthouse a full day’s work.
One first-term local district judge ended up in prison on public corruption charges, and several judges have been referred to the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, which provides peer support to judges with substance abuse, mental health disorders or other issues.
There are many different ways to select judges without the heavy hand of partisanship, and we look forward to seeing what the commission recommends based on best practices in other states.
All of this is about maintaining professionalism and restoring stability to the justice system. Change won’t come easy. Texans feel strongly about their right to elect judges, and any talk about taking away choices is going to get pushback.
But the law should be above partisan swings, and the loss of quality judges simply because of party affiliation is a disservice to all Texans.