Texas judges must retire at age 75. Voters could give them four more years on the bench
State judges in Texas are on average in their late 50s. But several prominent Texas judges would benefit immediately from the age change, according to a Hearst analysis.
That includes Hecht, who would regain a couple years of service left on his six-year term. Hecht declined to comment, and a court spokesperson said he was “not involved in the bill or consulted in any way on it.”
Five other high appellate court justices will turn 75 in their next term, if reelected: Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann and Court of Criminal Appeals Justices Sharon Keller, Barbara Hervey, Bert Richardson and Scott Walker. Keller and Hervey are up for reelection next year.
The proposed age change, which will go before voters in the Nov. 7 election, already has prompted at least one judge to reassess his plans.
Judge Doug Woodburn, who is 74 and serves in the 108th District in Amarillo, said he was planning his retirement when a lawyer came by his office and let him know that Proposition 13 would be on the ballot. The news made him “rethink” his long-term plan, and he decided that he wanted to stay to continue clearing up the overload of criminal cases in his county.
Woodburn already has begun fundraising and preparing to run for another term on the chance the proposal passes. He added that he thought 79 was an appropriate cap.
“Things have changed,” he said “People live longer now. People stay healthy and are more capable now than they might have been many years ago when that constitutional provision was originally written. We do a lot better than we used to.”
Woodburn said there are safeguards in place to prevent a judge from staying on the bench for longer than they’re physically or mentally able, he said. Judges must go before voters every four to six years and face oversight from a judicial conduct commission.
“I think if a judge is losing it, if they’re in a position where they’re really not competent any longer, I think that word gets out pretty quick,” he said.
Of the 32 states that set mandatory retirement limits, just over half set their cutoff at 70, according to the National Center for State Courts. Eight states, including Texas, set theirs at 75; Vermont is at 90; and the remainder plus the District of Columbia’s range from 72 to 74. Eighteen states have no caps.
In Texas, state district judges who turn 75 during their four-year term can finish it out, while appellate judges who turn 75 midterm can stay until Dec. 31 of the fourth year of their six-year terms.
Proponents of age limits say they create opportunities for younger, more diverse judicial candidates to run for office.
“The Judiciary has garnered more authority than our Founders had ever anticipated,” said Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from The Woodlands who was one of a handful of state lawmakers to vote against raising the retirement age. “Turnover is a good thing in government, especially in the Judiciary.”
Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said states have been increasingly considering measures that would raise judicial mandatory retirement ages, but they have tended to be unsuccessful. Raftery was unsure of the reason since the measures typically don’t attract major political interest or funding on either side.
“I think there’s a sense that nobody wants to give any elected official any more time in office,” Raftery said. “You see that when there are pushes to expand legislative terms from four years to six, once you lift term limits for legislators and others — generally speaking, adding terms, years for any elected official usually doesn’t work.”
Texas’ proposed amendment sailed through the state Legislature with virtually no opposition.
Jack Walker, vice president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, invoked Alexander Hamilton when speaking in support of the proposition at a Texas House committee hearing earlier this year.
In Federalist Paper 79, the founding father wrote in opposition to his home state of New York’s judicial retirement age of 60 years old. He called concerns about aging judges working beyond their ability an “imaginary danger.” Walker agreed and said there are “good reasons not to force retirement” on judges.
“We will likely be losing some great jurists with decades of experience and stable judgment,” Walker said. “We also have the benefit of electing our judges in Texas, thus any instability issues with a particular judge can be taken care of by our electorate.”
State Rep. Cody Vasut, R-Angleton, has unsuccessfully pushed in the last two sessions to remove the limits altogether.
The considerations during the Revolutionary period are much different than those of today, Raftery said. At the time, aside from impeachment or, in the states that hold them, elections, there was no other recourse for removing an incompetent judge.
Now, he said there are judicial oversight agencies, such as Texas’ State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which handles complaints and doles out sanctions.
No one spoke against the Texas proposition during public hearings or legislative debate this year. Contacted by Hearst Newspapers, neither the Mexican American Legislative Caucus nor the Texas Legislative Black Caucus took an official stance.
Texas’ judicial population is predominantly white. Sixty-five percent of district judges and 71 percent of appellate judges are white, according to the most recent data released in September.
The average ages of the Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil court; the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court; and the intermediate state appellate courts judges are 59, 59 and 54, respectively. The average age of state district judges and criminal district judges is 54 and 60.
Eva Guzman, 60, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who supports the proposition, said that many judges don’t stay on the bench past 70, well before reaching the current retirement age.
“I think the system works,” she said. “I think it strikes the right balance. If you look at the things critical to a strong justice system, you want stability, you want expertise, you want experience, and then most importantly, you want judicial independence.”
Guzman, who left the bench to run against Attorney General Ken Paxton in the 2022 Republican primary, said she hasn’t ruled out a future campaign in some yet-to-be-determined office. She noted that many Texas state officials and lawmakers commonly run well into their 70s these days.
“I’m a youngster,” Guzman joked.