Chief justice seeks to abolish judicial electionsJefferson says politics, money have destroyed Texans' confidence in justice.
By Chuck Lindell
AMERICAN STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, in a passionate plea for reform Wednesday, asked the Legislature to abolish the state's 133-year tradition of partisan judicial elections, saying the influence of politics and money has destroyed public confidence in justice.
In his biennial State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the Legislature, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson also asked lawmakers to create a commission to examine wrongful convictions. At least 36 Texans, including one on death row, have been exonerated in recent years, many due to advances in DNA testing.
Photo by: Jay Janner
An Ellis bill to create a Texas Innocence Commission died last session and has been reintroduced.
Jefferson reserved the bulk of his speech for what he called "the corrosive influence of money" in judicial elections. Polls show that more than 80 percent of Texans believe campaign contributions influence courtroom events, he said.
"That's an alarming figure — four out of five," Jefferson said. "If the public believes that judges are biased toward contributors, then confidence in the courts will suffer."
The chief justice advocated a merit selection system, with appointed judges running for re-election without opposition and without party identification. These "retention elections" let voters choose between keeping the judge in office or not.
Such a change would require amending the Texas Constitution.
The Legislature has shown little inclination to scrap judicial elections. Former Chief Justice John Hill called for their abolition 23 years ago, and his successor, Tom Phillips, was an aggressive advocate for reform to no avail.
About half of states use some form of appointment system, Jefferson said, but only seven employ partisan judicial elections, with candidates listed on the ballot by party affiliation.
States with appointed judges commonly use nominating committees to screen applicants and forward a slate of candidates to the governor, said Seth Andersen, executive vice president of the American Judicature Society, a nonprofit reform group based in Iowa. Many committees are a mix of lawyers and nonlawyers chosen by different constituencies to promote diversity, he said.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, filed legislation Wednesday to require all sitting appellate judges to run in nonpartisan retention elections when their terms expire. Vacancies would be filled by the governor, and appointees would face a retention election within three years.
"We need to take the money and politics out of our judicial system," Duncan said.
Consumer and watchdog groups, frequently critical of Jefferson and the Supreme Court, praised the call for election reform.
"Chief Justice Jefferson's acknowledgement that the Texas judicial election system is broken is the first step in restoring faith in Texas courts," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.