NEWS RELEASE
From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
March 14, 1997
Contact: Rick Svataro, (512) 463-0113

Senator Ellis Proposes Legislation to Improve Judicial Selection Process, Diversity at Senate Jurisprudence Committee Hearing in Houston.

HOUSTON, Tx. -- State Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today proposed legislative measures to increase the diversity of the Texas judiciary and to reform the judicial selection process at a hearing of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee at the Harris County Civil Courts Building in downtown Houston. Ellis urged state lawmakers to take swift action to reform a judicial system that most Texans say is overly influenced by political campaign contributions.

"The quality, impartiality, and moral authority of the Texas judiciary are severely undermined by the shortcomings of the judicial election system," Ellis said. "We must work to promote a fair, diverse and accountable system of justice in Texas."

According to a recent Texas Poll (2/97), 72% of Texans believe that judges' decisions in court cases are influenced by political pressure from campaign contributors, 69% of Texans believe judicial elections should be nonpartisan with judges running for office without a party label, and only 14% of Texans believe that Texas judges should be appointed.

"No Texan is well served by our current judicial selection system," said Ellis. "Judicial elections are very expensive, and candidates are forced to raise huge sums of money from attorneys who appear before them in court. We must ensure that there is not even the appearance that justice is for sale in Texas."

In addition, Ellis said the election of judges in urban counties from at-large countywide districts means that many minority judicial candidates stand little or no chance of being elected to the bench. According to the state Office of Court Administration, no minority holds a position on the Texas Courts of Appeals from Harris County, only three of Harris County's 59 State District Judges are minorities, and the Supreme Court of Texas has only one minority on the bench.

"Despite the increasing diversity of Texas, our judiciary remains virtually all white," Ellis said. "All of the people of Texas must have faith in the judicial system."

Ellis has introduced legislation (SB 409/SJR 23) that would allow for the appointment of appellate judges who would face subsequent retention elections. The legislation would also establish a non-partisan system for choosing Texas' appellate and district court judges. To increase judicial diversity, the plan would allow district judges in the state's four largest counties to be elected from commissioners court precincts. The measure would require voter approval to amend the Texas constitution.

"The problems of the Texas judicial system can no longer be ignored," Ellis said. "The influence of politics and money in the administration of justice is harming public confidence in our most sacred branch of government."

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), Chair of the House Committee on Judicial Affairs and State Rep. Patricia Gray (D), Chair of the House Committee on Civil Practices, also joined Senator Ellis at the hearing.

Racial Make-up of Texas Courts of Appeals
Area White Hispanic African American Asian
American
Native American Total
Statewide 72 (90%) 7 (9%) 1 (1%) 80 (100%)
Harris County 18 (100%) 18 (100%)
Dallas County 12 (93%) 1 (7%) 13 (100%)
Tarrant County 7 (100%) 7 (100%)
Bexar County 7 (100%) 7 (100%)

Source: Office of Court Administration (February 19, 1997)

Racial Make-up of Texas District Courts
Area White Hispanic African American Asian
American
Native American Total
Statewide 351 (88%) 35 (9%) 10 (3%) 396 (100%)
Harris County 56 (95%) 1 (2%) 2 (3%) 59 (100%)
Dallas County 31 (85%) 2 (5%) 4 (10%) 37 (100%)
Tarrant County 23 (96%) 1 (4%) 24 (100%)
Bexar County 14 (74%) 4 (21%) 1 (5%) 19 (100%)

Source: Office of Court Administration (February 19, 1997)

Racial Make-up of Texas' Highest Courts
Area White Hispanic African American Asian
American
Native American Total
Supreme Court 8 (89%) 1 (11%) 9 (100%)
Court Court of Criminal Appeals 8 (89%) 1 (11%) 9 (100%)

Source: Office of Court Administration (February 19, 1997)

SB 409/SJR 23 by Senator Rodney Ellis

Texas Judicial Selection Reform Fact Sheet

SB 409/SJR 23 would establish a non-partisan system for choosing Texas' appellate and district court judges. The plan would require voter approval to amend the Texas constitution.

Appointment and Approval Elections for Appellate Judges

All appellate judges -- the Texas Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the 14 Courts of Appeals -- would be appointed by the Governor.

The Governor's appellate judge appointments would be subject to Senate confirmation.

Two years following confirmation, an appellate judge would have to be approved by the voters. No other candidates would be running against the judge. If approved by the voters at this first election, the judge would serve six more years. The appellate judge would then face re-approval by the voters in uncontested elections every six years.

If an appellate judge is ever rejected by the voters, the Governor would appoint a new judge for that seat and the process would begin again.

Non-partisan Election for District Judges

All district judges would be selected using "non-partisan" elections, meaning the political parties would no longer choose candidates and party labels would no longer be used on the ballot.

There would be no runoff if the candidate with the most votes gets at least 30% of the vote. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters would compete in a run-off.

After a district judge is elected in a contested race for the judge's first four-year term, the judge would face the voters for approval in an uncontested election every four years. After the judge has been approved in two uncontested elections, the judge would have to run in a contested election again, and the process would start over. If the judge is ever rejected by the voters, a new judge would be selected in a contested, non-partisan election.

In Texas' most populous counties -- Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant -- district judge candidates would run their first election in county commissioner precincts. After serving their first term, these judges would face approval by all of the voters in the county in an uncontested election. If a judge in one of these counties is rejected by the voters or decides not to seek approval, a new judge would be selected in a contested election held in the county commissioner's precinct in which the outgoing judge was first selected.

SB 409/SJR 23 would take partisan politics out of judicial elections, promoting informed voting based on the quality and ability of the judicial candidates. The legislation would also increase the ability of minority candidates to compete in judicial elections.

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