Politics puts good judges on sidelines
By: San Antonio Express News
Kudos to Democrat District Attorney Joe Gonzales for finding positions in his administration for Republican judges who were swept out of office in the November general election.
Politicians like to pontificate about bipartisanship, but it is not often we see public displays of it in action. Gonzales sets a great example for his colleagues at the courthouse, some of whom chose not to employ staff that had previously worked for elected officials affiliated with the opposing political party.
Political party affiliation does not define an individual’s work ethic or professional dedication, but in the past couple of decades it is has been a judge’s party affiliation — not performance on the job — that has gotten them re-elected in Texas.
As a consequence, the state lost some great jurists at the top of the legal field and saw more than a few lackluster lawyers with skimpy résumés don judicial robes. Across the state, more than 400 Republican judges lost their benches as Democrats swept the polls during the midterm elections. Twenty-two members of the Bexar County judiciary were on that casualty list.
Gonzales told Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia recently he thought it unfortunate the county was losing some very seasoned judges and jumped at the opportunity to offer them jobs.
Among the former judges who remain employed by Bexar County through the district attorney’s office are several lawyers who began their careers as prosecutors. Former judges now on Gonzales’ staff include Melisa Skinner, Lorina Rummel, Crystal Chandler, Jason Garrahan, Scott Roberts and Jason Wolff.
“Really, when you’re looking to keep a community safe, safety is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” Gonzales said. “It’s an issue of common sense.”
We could not agree more, though we’ve had issues with Garrahan. He, in our view, improperly recused himself — too late — in the Kevin Wolff DWI case. It was properly used as a campaign issue against him.
In a state of the judiciary speech earlier this month, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, not for the first time, called on Texas lawmakers to consider changing the way judges are elected and proposed a merit selection system and retention elections.
Hecht is among a long list of Texas Supreme Court chief justices who been making a case for judicial selection reform since the 1980s, but there have been no takers to date.
If the recent elections results don’t serve as a wake-up call for state lawmakers, it is difficult to imagine what would get their attention.
It was not just county and district court judges who were affected by the Democratic sweep; Texas appellate courts were not immune. While all statewide posts went to Republicans, 20 Republican intermediate court appellate judges were voted out of office, shifting control of four state appeals courts in Austin, Houston and Dallas to Democratic majorities.
Hecht called the current judicial election system among the worst methods of selecting judges and urged support of legislation that would create more stringent qualifications for judicial candidates.
The elimination of straight party voting in 2020 should bring some stability to the local justice system, but it likely won’t be enough to ensure good judges stay in office.
There is something seriously wrong with a judicial election system in which partisanship becomes more important than qualifications.
It needs to be fixed.