Democrats in Houston Take Aim at GOP Judges
By NATHAN KOPPEL
WALL STREET JOURNAL
For more than a decade, Republican trial judges have won every judicial race in Houston, often without having to face a Democratic opponent.
But now, with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama expected to make a strong showing in Harris County, where Houston is located, Democrats are hopeful they can win back Houston's courts.
The battle is a reminder that judges are not above the political fray. While judicial elections are nothing new, the money spent nationally on them has climbed. State supreme-court candidates raised $165 million from 1999 to 2007, compared with $62 million from 1993 to 1998, according to the American Judicature Society, an organization opposed to partisan judicial elections.
Many lawyers nationwide have expressed concern about judicial elections, because judges raise much of their campaign funds from lawyers who appear before them. "Texas needs to rethink its judicial election system to get partisanship out and money out of the courtroom," says Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a consumer-rights group.
When it comes to electing judges along party lines, Harris County stands out, as no Democrat has won a district-court race there since 1994. The Republican hegemony has resulted in a bench that, some lawyers say, tilts in favor of corporate defendants in civil cases and prosecutors in criminal cases. Many Republican criminal judges ran on a "tough on crime" platform.
Democrats now believe they can claim some -- and perhaps all -- of the 27 county judicial seats up for grabs Tuesday. The presidential race is one reason Democrats are hopeful. More than 400,000 Harris County residents voted in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, compared with about 70,000 in the 2004 primary.
Demographics also could play a role. In 2006, Hispanics constituted 38% of the county's population, up from 33% in 2000. Plus, the recent national debate over immigration policy could lead to a high turnout among Hispanics, who tend to favor Democrats, says Renée Cross, the associate director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy.
For encouragement, Houston Democrats can look north to Dallas County. Republicans had long held a near lock on the courts there, but Democrats in 2006 pulled off a clean sweep, winning every judicial race in the election.
Allen Blakemore, a Republican consultant and fund raiser in the city, says the Dallas GOP was caught napping in 2006. He says Republican judges have now raised considerably more funds than in prior election cycles, to be used on last-minute advertising that touches on conservative themes.