Texas Supreme Court judges should disclose votesSen. Kirk Watson's bill would reveal justices' votes on petitions.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Because the elected Supreme Court justices in Texas are heavily dependent on money from attorneys and businesses with cases before the court, voters should know as much as possible about their records. That includes knowing how they voted when accepting and rejecting cases.
In states like Texas that elect judges, disclosure should be the rule. Texans should know their judges' political contributions, judicial philosophies and records — and for the Supreme Court that should include how they voted in reviewing petitions.
A bill by Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson would require Supreme Court justices to disclose how they voted on every petition that comes before the court. That might seem like basic information because the court denies 87 percent of the requests that come before it. Voting on petitions is where most of the action is.
But the all-Republican court doesn't like Democrat Watson's bill at all. The justices fear their votes could give ammunition to opponents in judicial races, force them to spend time defending their positions on cases, and slow the already glacial pace of the court.
Too bad. Candidates for the Supreme Court run partisan, political races and therefore ought to have to defend their records. They accept millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the most controversial sources — lawyers and businesses with cases before the court — so their impartiality is always in question.
They absolutely should have to reveal how they voted in rejecting or accepting a case. If they feel a vote needs explaining, they can offer one. That's hardly onerous for a court that already takes about 14 months to decide a case.
Watson is right to insist that such transparency is basic good government, and that extra work is no argument against public accountability for elected officials. If it were, Texas would have no open government because the public's right to know is always something of a necessary burden.
Every poll taken in recent years finds the public's respect for the judiciary declining. A huge and growing number of Americans believe that money influences justice in this country. And Texas is a poster child for that sentiment because its elected judges accept money from clients with cases before it, a system tailor-made for bias or worse.
It isn't surprising that the justices prefer to keep voters ignorant about the petitions they consider. Most are elected because of the party label after their names and their televised campaign ads, which cost a lot of money. So the less the public knows about their records, the happier they are.
Watson's bill would at least give the public a deeper look at our state's system of justice and more information about the judges elected to administer it. His bill is languishing in the GOP-led Legislature, but it should become law because the public has every right to know how their elected judges voted on cases before them.