Texas needs a better way to select judges
By Fred W. Heldenfels IV
In 1987, 60 Minutes aired a story entitled “Texas Justice for Sale,” and viewers experienced utter disbelief that the civil justice system in this state was controlled by an aggressive group of trial lawyers. Since then, there has been a 25-year effort in Texas to restore our courts and add responsible justices to the bench. Many have celebrated tort reform in Texas and declared it “done.” But is it?
Last week, a federal court jury convicted Rudy Delgado, a suspended justice on the Texas 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi, of eight criminal charges stemming from his acceptance of bribes, violation of the Travel Act and obstruction of justice when he was a state district judge.
After his indictment in February 2018, Delgado was suspended from his seat on the 93rd District Court by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Due to a technicality that prevented his name from being removed from the ballot, however, Delgado won election to a seat on the 13th Court of Appeals in November 2018. He was again suspended and is prohibited from serving in any judicial office.
The fact that a judge under indictment for accepting bribes can run for higher office and win should be a major red flag for Texans. Delgado’s indictments were not a secret — they had been widely reported for months in the local news leading up to the 2018 elections. His opponent was an accomplished and well-known city attorney, former county attorney and former district court judge who serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. But unfortunately, many Texans simply don’t have enough knowledge about the candidates for judicial office to make informed decisions. Many voters cast their votes for judges based on party affiliation or name recognition, since they have no knowledge of the relative merits of the candidates.
Presumably, this is why Delgado won election against a well-qualified opponent. Last year also saw many experienced, competent judges swept off the bench in many Texas counties simply because of their party affiliation. Neither party is immune to these sweeps — in 2018, 32 Republican appellate judges lost their elections, but similar results have befallen Democratic judges in past years and are likely to in future years.
Judicial sweeps create debilitating instability in the court system, which has serious consequences for the rule of law and trust in our courts.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed House Bill 3040, which creates the Judicial Selection Commission to study how the state selects its judges. Governor Abbott signed the bill into law on June 14. The commission will have 15 members: four appointed by the governor, four appointed by the lieutenant governor, four appointed by the speaker, and one each appointed by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the board of directors of the State Bar of Texas.
The commission’s findings will give impetus to an important — and long overdue — conversation in Texas about how we select the men and women who serve on the bench. After all, there are two parts to our civil justice system: the laws on the books and the people who enforce them. Without clear laws and high-quality judges with the utmost integrity and respect for the rule of law, it’s hard to declare any type of victory.
Fred W. Heldenfels IV is the treasurer of Texans for Lawsuit Reform and president and CEO of Heldenfels Enterprises.