Lone Star State should find a better way to choose judges
By Bruce Davidson
SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS
Good judges hate to raise money and act like politicians.
But the Texas judicial selection system forces them to be politicians, and that creates a major perception problem about Texas justice.
Hearst Austin Bureau Chief Clay Robison delved into the issue in a report last week on the three Texas Supreme Court races on the ballot.
Robison reported that liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice found that through June 30 the Republican incumbents and the Democratic challengers had raised about two-thirds of their contributions from lawyers and others who had business before the court during the last three years.
The dividing line is well known to anyone who has followed judicial races in the last 20 years.
GOP candidates receive most of their support from defense lawyers, insurance industry PACs and tort-reform advocates, Robison reported.
Democratic challengers get money form plaintiff-oriented contributors.
The biggest development of this election cycle is the return of serious Democratic challengers after a decade of total GOP domination.
The real problems with this system are the partisan election of judges who are supposed to be independent umpires and the flow of contributions that also undermines the perception of unbiased fairness.
Additionally, unless a statewide judicial race turns into a multi-million slugfest, voters know little about the candidates.
A poll conducted in 1999 showed that when voters were asked to name a member of the Texas Supreme Court, 2 percent named then-Chief Justice Tom Phillips. Two other judges were named by 1 percent of the respondents. No other judge received even 1 percent. Some 93 percent of the voters surveyed couldn't name a single high-court justice.
An earlier poll found that voters believed the Texas Supreme Court was soft on crime, despite the fact that the court deals only with civil cases.
The court's profile isn't any higher today.
That means judges often get elected based on party affiliation, not because voters have a familiarity with their performance.
The situation is similar at the trial-court level.
Earlier this week, the Houston Chronicle reported that Harris County's all-Republican district court ranks are bracing for possible changes wrought by a rising Democratic tide. In 2006, more than 40 Republican judges in Dallas were defeated, the Chronicle noted.
If that happens, Republicans should recall that the Texas GOP leadership fought in 2003 against a reform that would have ended partisan sweeps.
A merit selection/retention election system would be a better way to pick judges. The governor would appoint judges screened by a bi-partisan panel of legal experts. The judges would serve a term and then face an up-or-down vote of the people.
Texans could dump bad judges, partisan sweeps would be eliminated and special-interest influence would be reduced.
No savvy gambler would bet on the reform happening anytime soon. After numerous failed attempts in the 1990s and early part of this decade, reformers have been dormant.
If the partisan tide is changing, Democrats will turn against the idea and Republicans may wish they had acted when they could have.
Until a change is made, judges will be forced to be politicians and voters will make decisions often based on party affiliation and little else.