Jefferson: Change judicial selection system
By KELLEY SHANNON Associated Press Writer
© 2009 The Associated Press
Feb. 11, 2009
AUSTIN — Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson told legislators Wednesday the state should change its system of electing judges to reduce the influence of money and straight-ticket voting on judicial races.
In his "State of the Judiciary" speech to the Legislature, Jefferson said he supports a system that some other states have in which judges are appointed based on merit then held accountable with elections to decide whether they get to remain in office.
Texas has been electing judges since 1876 and is one of only seven states that holds partisan judicial elections, he said. There are campaign contribution limits for judicial races, but statewide judicial candidates like Jefferson still raise large sums of money to get elected.
Jefferson said he shares retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's concern about the "corrosive influence" of money on judge elections.
Even the perception that money influences court cases destroys public confidence, he said.
"A merit system, in which voters later vote the judge up or down, is the best remedy, but I commend any innovation in which the goals are to recruit and retain qualified judges, and to reduce the role of money in judicial campaigns," said Jefferson, to applause from legislators.
Republican Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock announced later in the day he filed legislation that would set up a judicial appointment system like the one Jefferson supports. His proposal would grandfather all current appellate justices into the new system and make them subject to a retention election when their current terms expire.
"We need to take the money and politics out of our judicial system," Duncan said. "No one should have to fear the justice system based on campaigns or contributions."
Consumer and government watchdog groups called Wednesday for such a change in the Texas judiciary before Jefferson's speech. One of those organizations, Texans for Public Justice, later praised Jefferson's remarks.
"Chief Justice Jefferson's acknowledgment that the Texas judicial election system is 'broken' is the first step in restoring faith in Texas courts," said Craig McDonald, director of TPJ. He urged the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature to act swiftly on Jefferson's calls for merit selection of judges.
Previous Texas Supreme Court chief justices Tom Phillips and John Hill also advocated a merit selection system.
Jefferson, a Republican initially appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Perry and later elected, said he also worries that straight-ticket voting determines judicial election winners based on party affiliation. Partisan sweeps in urban counties in recent elections have caused qualified district judges to lose elections, he said.
And, he said, his recent re-election may have been as much because Republican presidential candidate John McCain did well in Texas as his judicial credentials.
Qualified Democrats and Republicans should have the chance to serve, he said.
"Justice must be blind — it must be as blind to party affiliation as to the litigant's social or financial status. The rule of law resonates across party lines," he said.
On another subject, Jefferson said he supports creating a commission to investigate every case of DNA exoneration and to establish statewide reforms.
Jefferson's Texas Supreme Court handles civil cases. The Court of Criminal Appeals is the state's highest criminal appeals court.
The judicial selection bill is SB 782.