FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM EDITORIAL
Texas Legislature needs to change system of judicial selection
When Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson turned to the problems of judicial selection during his State of the Judiciary speech last Wednesday, it might have sounded to some listeners like the same song they’ve heard from whoever’s leading Texas’ highest civil court.
But it really was a new verse for a very new day.
In his address to members of the Legislature, Jefferson pointed out that, when judges must run for office in partisan elections as they do in Texas, too much of the public believes that judicial decisions are influenced by large campaign donations.
"Is our current judicial election system, which fuels the idea that politics and money play into the rule of law, the best way to elect judges in Texas?" he said.
Calling the status quo "broken," Jefferson pointed to recent partisan sweeps in urban counties and said, "Sadly, we have now become accustomed to judicial races in which the primary determinants of victory are not the flaws of the incumbent or qualities of the challenger, but political affiliation and money."
The problems aren’t exclusive to Texas. In fact, ugly, high-dollar judicial races, often featuring notorious TV ads, are tainting the reputations of courts across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court soon will hear arguments in a West Virginia case that raises questions whether a fair hearing is possible when big money is spent on judicial races.
In that dispute, a coal company owner spent millions to defeat an appellate judge. But when the judge who won that race voted to overturn a $50 million jury verdict against the company, the other party in the case argued that he was biased by the campaign expenditures and should have recused himself.
In his speech, Jefferson advocated a merit-selection system, in which judges are appointed and the public then has a chance to vote on whether to keep them in office.
But he added, "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."
Jefferson’s predecessors, John Hill and particularly Tom Phillips, called for a better system of choosing Texas judges. Phillips doggedly pushed some form of merit selection and made headway in the Legislature. But it’s never been an easy fight.
Jefferson previously has supported a move away from the partisan election of judges.
But he told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board last year that there looked to be little reason to take it on this legislative session because then-Speaker Tom Craddick had made it plain he wasn’t interested in letting any reforms through.
With Craddick replaced by new Speaker Joe Straus, the roadblock’s removed.
The Editorial Board has argued for years that Texas should move to an appointment-retention system. It’s essentially what the state already does in practice for many court seats, especially at the appellate level. It’s what will happen when Gov. Rick Perry picks a replacement for state District Judge Len Wade, whose last day on the bench was Friday. Whoever gets the appointment will have to run in 2010 but will have the advantage of being an incumbent.
Changing Texas’ judicial selection won’t suddenly be simple. And devising the best method will take thoughtful give-and-take.
But at least the battle’s been engaged again.
Now, let’s get on with productive debate and meaningful improvement.