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US: Judicial appointments in Texas

From Texas, David Crow writes: "All systems of judicial selection have pitfalls and are subject to politicization. In Texas, judges at all levels--district, appellate, and Supreme Court--are chosen by voters in partisan elections. The sums of money required to mount a competitive campaign are sometimes very high and, as a result, judges spend a lot of time fundraising. The financial backers are overwhelmingly law firms, many times ones that have active cases before the judges. In a recent Houston custody battle, the wife's lawyer hosted a fundraiser for the judge, in the lawyer's home, on the second day of trial. Amazingly, this is permissible under Texas law.

Chief Justice Tom Phillips, a Republican, is an outspoken critic of judicial elections, stating that campaigns make judges into politicians, divert judges' time from administering justice, and create a potential appearance of bias toward campaign backers. In fact, a study published several years ago showed that law firms that had contributed to Supreme Court campaigns were four times more likely to have cases accepted for appellate review than non-contributing firms. (See

Partially as a result of Justice Phillips's advocacy, a bill has been introduced in the state legislature to replace elections with an appointment system (or "merit selection", in the ABA's circumlocution), in which judges would be subject to "retention elections". Another proposed bill would make elections non-partisan.

There are several problems. One is that polling research confirms that, despite being poorly informed about judicial candidates, voters strongly favor elections. A second is that retention elections are also susceptible to politicization, as happened with Justice Rose Bird in California, to mention one example. A caveat about making elections non-partisan is that many times, party label is the only piece of information voters have on judges.

The most serious obstacle to reform in Texas, however, is Justice Phillips's own party. The GOP party operatives and faithful have come out strongly against abolishing elections or making them non-partisan. With good reason: they're hammering the Democrats. All nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court are Republican".

RH: All this amazes me. I grew up in Winchester. England, the seat of assises. The visiting judges were forbidden to socialize during their stay lest their judgment be influenced. They even ate alone.

Ronald Hilton - 3/20/03