This Legislation Would Boost The Years of Experience to Become a Texas Judge
By Dan Clark
Attorneys running for district judge in Texas would need double the years of experience under legislation that is advancing through the Texas Legislature.
Currently the Texas Constitution says that a candidate for a district court must be licensed as an attorney for at least four years. The threshold would increase to eight years under Senate Joint Resolution 47, which received a public hearing on Wednesday and was left pending in the Texas House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. The measure already passed the Senate on April 27.
The resolution by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would propose a constitutional amendment—voters would need to approve it—to change the qualifications for district judges and the Texas Supreme Court. The bill doesn’t change high court justices’ current qualifications of 10 years of experience as a lawyer, or as an attorney and judge combined. But it does add that a candidate couldn’t have had his or her law license revoked or suspended during that 10 year period.
SJR 47 would also impact Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges and intermediate appellate court justices, since the state constitution ties their qualifications to the Texas Supreme Court. In addition to changing the years of experience for district judge candidates, the bill said they could not have faced disbarment or a law license suspension during the eight years before they ran for election.
One of the resolution’s provisions would ensure that the new qualifications would not apply to any current justice or judge. It would only apply to candidates who run for a term beginning on Jan. 1, 2025 or later.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Leach said during Wednesday’s public hearing that the resolution came out of recommendations during 2020 by the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection.
The legislature in 2019 created the commission, and its bipartisan members met throughout 2020 to study whether Texas should change how it picks its judges. The members of the commission were divided on doing away with partisan elections for judges. But they were in favor of boosting the qualifications to run for judge, and reforming the role of money in judicial campaigns.
Vice Chairwoman Yvonne Davis asked whether there are now judges in Texas who would not meet the new requirements in the bill.
“This change would impact five current district judges on the bench,” replied Leach. But he added that since the bill wouldn’t apply retroactively, it wouldn’t impact those five judges.
Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, asked if the new qualifications would also apply to judges appointed to the bench by the governor.
Leach said that governors would have to appoint judges with the qualifications laid out in the bill.
Jo Ann Richards of the Texas Fair Courts Network said that she was supporting the resolution. Richards said it has support from Clean Elections Texas, Common Cause Texas, Common Ground for Texans, Legal Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP.
Richards did suggest a few minor tweaks to make a provision about revoked or suspended law licenses more specific and clear.
She said, “There are some things that are a little inconsistent in the bill, that could be strengthened.”