What's The Deal With Texas' System Of Electing Judges?

Jan 30, 2018

Quick quiz: How many state district judges are in Travis County? The answer is right on the tip of your tongue, right?

No, of course it isn’t. It’s a question that almost nobody knows the answer to. If you do, you’re probably either one of those judges or you work in a judge’s office.

Got questions for Ben about the elections? Email him at bphilpott@kut.org, and he may answer them in an upcoming column.

I’ll give you the answer in a little bit, but first let’s go over what many voters do know about judicial elections in Texas.

The candidates are listed by political party affiliation.

Yeah, that’s it. If voters know nothing else about the candidates, they know that. Like elections for governor, land commissioner and state senators, Texas picks its judges in partisan races. That includes every position from the state’s highest courts down to the justice of the peace.

Texas is only one of six states that pick members of their supreme courts this way, one of just six that pick appellate court justices this way, and one of nine states that pick district court judges on a partisan ballot.

What do other states do? More than 75 percent of states have a system that leaves politics largely out of the process. Specifics depend on which level of court you’re talking about, but with state supreme courts, for example, 15 states use a nonpartisan election. Another 14 use a merit-based system where a commission generates a list of candidates a governor can choose from for the nomination. In nine states, the governor appoints a judge, and then the legislature must approve the nomination.

Many Texas judges will tell you privately that they hate the state’s partisan system. But some of the state’s top judges have spent the last few years publicly asking for a new process.

Wallace Jefferson, who was Supreme Court chief justice from 2004 to 2013, was fairly blunt about his distaste for the way judges are elected. He said the state’s system was broken and that it shouldn’t use partisan elections to pick its judiciary. In an interview with The Atlantic, he also aimed his criticism at the use of money in a partisan election.

“I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system. So I would change it completely if I were king,” he said.

Others have complained about how judges, who run their courtrooms as far from partisan politics as possible, are caught up in political waves. Current Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht pointed this problem out when he delivered his State of the Judiciary speech during the 2017 legislative session.

"In November, many good judges lost solely because voters in their districts preferred a presidential candidate in the other party," he said.

He suggested removing judicial races from the state’s straight-ticket voting option. That way a wave at the top of the ballot might not wash out several good judges at the bottom.

But change can be slow, and even with the state’s top judges asking for a break from partisan elections, lawmakers haven't been very interested in helping them out. But don’t fret, there will probably be another run at changing the system during the 2019 legislative session.

Of course, that's not soon enough to help judges and voters in the 2018 election. And that brings us back to my question at the top: How many state district judges are in Travis County? The answer is 19. Several of those seats will be on the ballot this year. So, in addition to the seven statewide races at the top of the ballot, your state House and possibly state Senate, you’ll have a handful of judicial races to vote on.

Want to know as much as you can before heading to the polls? In Travis County, the Austin Bar Association conducts a judicial preference poll among its members in an effort to determine who the most qualified candidates are. So, check that out when it’s released in February.

Beyond that, it’s not easy to pick whom to support. Unlike with a regular politician, there’s no real information – no campaign promises, no bills passed and no controversial votes taken – to help you judge a judge.

TXDecides

Now onto a question I hope to be able to answer a little better than, “How do I pick a judge?”

As part of our TXDecides series, we’re asking people to send in questions about the upcoming primary elections. Our question today comes from Carissa, no last name given. She asks:

“I would like to know why the polling locations are random, hard to find, and with long lines. Why can't we have more locations?”

I’ll be honest, I’m not going to try to answer, “Why can’t we have more locations?” Travis County has more than 150 polling locations. I don’t know if that’s fewer or more than other large counties. I don’t how Travis County compares to other places in its voter-to-polling location ratio.

I will say this: The locations are not selected randomly and usually are not hard to find. They’re located in community centers, schools, libraries – all places that a person should be familiar with in his or her neighborhood.

Long lines? Yes, especially in some of the Central Austin locations and during a presidential election. But here are a couple of pointers to help avoid the line. First, vote during early voting. You can vote at any of the early-voting places across Austin for almost two weeks before the election. Second, even on Election Day, you can vote at ANY of those more than 150 locations. Travis County even has an app on its website that shows you where all the polling places are and how long the wait is to vote. So, if you wait until Election Day to cast your vote, you should be able to pick a place without a really long line.

We’ve still got five weeks until primary Election Day, so keep sending in your questions to KUT’s TXDecides project.

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