Issues Facing the 78th Legislature
(Austin) - On March 4, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips gave the State of the Texas Judiciary address to the Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives in joint session. In the process, he renewed the debate on whether Texas should elect judges, or have them appointed by the governor.
Currently, Texans choose all trial and appellate judges in partisan elections. Only two other states, West Virginia and Louisiana, have similar systems. Chief Justice Phillips and some lawmakers in Austin are advocating changing to a system of appointment and retention. Under this system, the governor would appoint judges, then voters would vote to retain or dismiss them. If voters chose to dismiss a judge, the governor would then name a replacement.
Two pieces of legislation, Senate Joint Resolution 33 and House Joint Resolution 63, would call for all Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, Court of Appeals and District Court justices and judges to face a non-partisan retention election where voters would "yes" or "no" at the end of each term.
This article will focus on this debate by providing you with some of the arguments for and against this system.
APPOINTMENT AND RETENTION
According to Justice Phillips, when Texas adopted judicial elections in 1850, there were only three supreme court justices and eleven district court judges in the entire state. Now, Phillips says, long ballots and big money campaigns have negated the original intent of judicial elections.
Phillips' arguments for this system were outlined in his address to the Legislature. Some of Justice Phillips arguments for this system are:
1.) Retention elections would preserve the good of electing judges while eliminating the bad. Retention elections would give most voters more control over their judges than they currently have, because most judicial races are unopposed and incumbents need only one vote to be re-elected.
2.) Retention elections are non-partisan, and will therefore encourage a more deliberate vote. Most judicial victories or defeats are more about party label than competence. Rapid changes in demographics and political affiliations will increase judicial turnover if we keep the current system.
3.) Retention elections will minimize the need for judges to participate in million-dollar campaigns that erode public confidence in the judicial system. According to a 1998 survey, 83 percent of Texans believed that Texas judicial decisions were "very" or "fairly" influence by campaign contributions.
Chief Justice Phillips said we can end the years of debate on this issue by letting the people decide what kind of election they prefer.
The Republican Party of Texas (RPT) is supporting the current system. According to RPT, some arguments against appointment and retention are:
1.) Texans have a constitutional right to elect judges. The current system allows the public to choose who will interpret our laws and make decisions affecting our lives. Under this system, voters would not be allowed to elect their judges at all. If a judge was voted out of office, the voters would not be allowed to choose a new judge.
2.) Appointment / Retention would undermine accountability. While Texans would still be able to remove judges, the people would have no voice in selecting the replacement. The new judge may be no better than the previous, and the people would have no voice in that decision. Also, there is nothing to prevent a governor from reappointing a judge the voters just ousted.
3.) Appointment / Retention would cause increased political contributions to influence the judicial system. Because judicial candidates would have no political party structure to support their election, they would have to raise even more money to pay for retention elections. In the case of open seats, contributions could be steered to gubernatorial candidates who would make the judicial appointment.
Advocates of our current system claim that critics have failed to make a substantive case for implementing a new system, and we need to keep the 153-year-old right of the people in place.
To contact Sen. Deuell about the legislative process, contact the Capitol Office at (512) 463-0102 or mail to Sen. Bob Deuell, Texas Senate, P.O. Box 12068, Austin, TX 78711. The website for the Texas Senate is www.Senate.state.tx.us. The e-mail address for Sen. Deuell is: firstname.lastname@example.org.