Political labels aren’t the best way to judge judges

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Don’t come to me for political advice. Thomas Baker, a Killeen attorney, knows that.

He called a year ago, and asked, “Should I run for the 3rd Court of Appeals?” Noting that that was a solid GOP district, I asked, “Are you well-known? Do you have money? Is there some reason incumbent Senior Justice David Puryear, who easily won election in his previous races, might be vulnerable?”

Thomas Baker answered no to each question; however, he was personally upset at one of Puryear’s rulings. I told him the outcome would be influenced strongly by top-of-the-ballot-races and added, “You’ll probably get slaughtered.”

Several months later, I spoke at a State Bar of Texas event and saw Democrat Chari Kelly, who was running for a different place on the same court. She and her attorney husband Adam Schramek were campaigning furiously, going everywhere. I asked if she had seen Thomas and was told he had stopped campaigning. I knew he was discouraged, as his fund-raising had been fruitless.

But on Election Night, Thomas sent me a note: “I didn’t get slaughtered.”

Sure enough, he won his race 54 percent to 46 percent, the same winning margin as Chari Kelly. Did each candidate campaign exactly as hard and have the same credentials? Was each opponent equally qualified? Of course not.

I assumed that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's re-election bid would drive excited GOP voters to the polls. Instead, he had no trouble beating an unknown and ineffectual Democrat. What did motivate voters, however, was the U.S. Senate Race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke. While O’Rourke lost by more than 200,000 votes, he attracted a huge Democratic vote in large cities. Travis County turnout was enough to offset the other counties in the district served by the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals.

The flip side of the unexpected Democratic victory was the defeat of Republican appellate judges like Houston’s Brett Busby and David Farr, both of whom, aside from owning stellar reputations, have gone out their way to help attorneys.

While Democrats won contested races in Dallas, Harris, El Paso and Bexar Counties, every Democrat lost in the statewide elections for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court.

Judicial general election outcomes are based much more on the results of the most popular races, rather than the attributes of the judicial candidates.

My dog Roosticus could be a judge if she picked the right party. It turns out The Honorable Barbara Rice Stalder, newly-elected judge of the 280th District in Harris County, has invited her to attend court and comfort children requiring judicial conferences. Stalder sent me a note saying, “Thank Beto for me.”

Party affiliation is not the best way to elect our judges. Neither party has a monopoly on effective jurists. The 2018 election is the last time we’ll have straight-party voting in Texas, but party labels remain a very strong influence in judicial elections. Even though the straight ticket option will be eliminated, this won’t change people’s habits; many will simply select their party’s candidates one by one, all the way down the ballot. An analysis I wrote a few years ago for the Austin American-Statesman of previous statewide elections demonstrated that, even after subtracting the straight-party vote, there is little variance between the candidates’ support.

In 2006, Republican Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson advocated non-partisan judicial races. The public is not going to evaluate each candidate on a long list of hopefuls.

In many counties, local bar associations survey their lawyers and rate judges. This is quite helpful, as most attorneys try to do an honest job and political party is usually left out. In addition, its crucial to check the State Commission on Judicial Conduct’s online records concerning disciplinary sanctions; it’s best to support a candidate who has not been sanctioned, and to give the other person a chance.

For overall improvement, however, removing the party labels would force more voters to actually investigate the people running for the bench. That would be the most valuable impetus towards a better-qualified judiciary.