The sudden Republican push to appoint judges instead of electing them

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Photo: Harris County Black Girl Magic

Judges in Texas are selected in partisan elections. Republicans have run Texas for the last quarter century, and seem to have had little problem with that system. Until now.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans lost every judge they had in Harris County (59 benches), 22 judges in Bexar County, as well as control of state appeals courts in the Austin, Dallas and Houston regions. With the dramatic shift, the GOP’s position has changed to thinking electing judges is a bad idea. 

During his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht urged lawmakers to change the judicial selection process. As a result, during its 86th session, the Texas Legislature has considered bills to change the way judges are chosen in Texas.

One measure, House Bill 3061, would authorize an interim study of “the method by which certain trial and appellate judges are selected.” 

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Brooks Landgraf, (R-Odessa), directs the Governor to appoint judges, replacing the current system of electing our judiciary. Two thirds of the Senate would confirm the selections.

Three former chief justices of the Texas Supreme Court — all Republicans — testified in support of the bill last month in the Legislature. Democrats on the committee questioned the timing of the proposal, given the size of the 2018 Democratic victories in judicial elections, particularly in Harris County.

“This reform would dramatically increase the pool of judicial applicants, would free judges to work instead of campaign, and would remove the ‘justice for sale’ taint from our courts,” wrote one of the justices, Tom Phillips, in an opinion piece.

It’s unclear how the bill, which calls for retention elections in the years following any gubernatorial appointment, would prevent campaigning.

State Rep. Julie Johnson, a member of the House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence who has practiced law for 28 years, said she was “troubled” by the Landgraf bill. The proposal, she said, doesn’t take partisanship out of the judicial process as bill supporters suggest.

“The judicial branch needs to be independent of the legislature of money and power,” said Rep. Johnson, a Democrat. “The fact that [in this bill] we’re having senate confirmation by a two-thirds vote seems to be directly in contradiction to that. It is definitely interference by the legislature and definitely subject to money and power.”

Suddenly attacking the method of electing judges right after one party loses control doesn’t speak to good government. It sounds more like a party that’s panicking.

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