Judicial reforms will be considered by a special committee of the Texas Legislature in public hearings in 2014. In preparation for these hearings, The Texas Fair Courts Network invited committee leaders to come together on 21 November 2013 to discuss alternatives to the current system of partisan elections of judges in Texas.
The forum was sponsored by
- The Center for Politics and Governance, LBJ School of Public Affairs
- The Texas Fair Courts Network: Common Cause Texans, Common Ground for Texans, Clean Elections Texas, Public Citizen Texas, Texas Civic Engagement Table, Texas Research Institute, and Texans for Public Justice.
Justice Wallace Jefferson, former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, opened the forum by reading from his op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle of March 21, 2009.
You don’t know who I am. I don’t blame you. I have been on the statewide ballot three times, in 2002, 2006 and 2008. I was elected each time by impressive margins. Yet a July 2008 statewide poll found that 86 percent of the electorate “never heard of” me. I won because Texans voted for Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John McCain.
My parents gave me a good ballot name. My beautiful wife and three handsome sons adorned political advertisements on network television. But these things tell you nothing about my intellect, integrity or temperament.
My success depended primarily on a straight-ticket partisan vote.
Justice Jefferson’s opening remarks set the stage for the other speakers to address the question of whether there is a better way.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of Public Citizen Texas, presented a short history of judicial reform in Texas.
A panel, moderated by Sherri Greenberg, Director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, addressed the challenges to Fair Courts:
- David Lyle, Senior Counsel for Network Advancement at the American Constitution Society, “Justice at Risk: Effect of Money & Elections on Sentencing”
- Ware Wendell, Director of Legislative Affairs at Texas Watch, “Pro-Corporate Bias on the Texas Supreme Court”
- Steven Kirkland, former Harris County District Judge, “Texas Judicial Elections: A View From the Campaign Trail”
After several hours of listening, it was time for the 45 community leaders attending the forum to meet in small groups to discuss alternatives to our current system of partisan election of judges. Among the alternatives were merit selection with retention elections, non-partisan elections, publicly funded elections, and imposition of tougher recusal standards.
Each group was asked:
- to discuss the alternatives (or parts of alternatives) they would most favor, and why
- to discuss the alternatives (or parts of alternatives) they would least favor, and why
- to reflect on something they learned, something that surprised them, or something they struggled with during the conversation
- to report to the whole audience the option that was most favored, the option that was least favored, and the reasons for both.
A summary of these small-group discussions is in preparation and will be posted soon.
The afternoon concluded with a round of applause from all and a sigh of relief from the organizers.