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November 30th, 2012:

Friday random ten: For the ladies, part 7

Getting close to the end of this series:

1. Mrs. Martha Knowles – Silly Wizard
2. Mrs. McGrath – Bruce Springsteen
3. Mrs. Robinson – Simon and Garfunkel
4. Mrs. Robinson – Pomplamoose
5. Peg – Steely Dan
6. Polly – Amanda Palmer
7. Rosalita – Bruce Springsteen
8. Rosealia – Better Than Ezra
9. Rosemary – The Grateful Dead
10. Rosie – The Mollys

Mrs. Robinson may be the best-known married woman in song, or at least in a song title. I’d have to give that some study to be sure. I have one more of these lists to go, then we’ll move on to something else.

Pity the poor judges

It’s hard out here on a judge.

For longer than anyone remembers, you had to be a Democrat to be a district judge in Texas – or just about any other political office. When the Democratic Party split apart in the South over civil rights, Republicans gained the upper hand, so much so that by 1998 you had to have an “R” next to your name to have a shot at statewide office.

Recent election results show little change overall for the Lone Star State, still known as the reddest of the red. But in its largest metropolitan area, a new look is emerging. If the latest general election is fair measure, Harris County today is a brilliant, deep purple, almost evenly split between the two major parties.

And nowhere does that cause more discomfort than the county courthouse, where judges suddenly find themselves with none of the job security that has often accompanied the job. Partisan dominance meant that if you reached the bench – often via political appointment – you had a reasonable chance of staying there for awhile. Now local judges are buffeted by political winds beyond their control, and they face the distinct possibility of losing their job just as they have figured out how to do it.

Former Judge Mark Davidson, who often ranked at or near the top in local judicial polls, lost his bench in the Barack Obama tidal wave of 2008. He does not like what he sees now, with a polarized electorate voting along party lines, and he has no intention of running again soon.

“To run and know it doesn’t matter anything about my or my opponent’s qualifications – that the outcome may be determined by who is on the top of the ticket and people will vote on criteria other than my service as a trial judge – is not something I choose to do,” Davidson said.

[…]

What that means for the future is unclear, in part because it’s unfamiliar territory. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, who spent more than a decade as a district judge in Harris County, predicts it will be harder to recruit good potential judges because of the uncertainty factor. If races are going to be narrowly decided and influenced heavily by the names at the top of the ticket, why would a successful, talented lawyer give up a comfortable practice for less pay and more risk?

“In a close county like Harris County is now, being an incumbent doesn’t help you,” Brister said. “The odds are 50-50. You leave your practice and will be making less money, and you have to be constantly worried whether you will keep the job. If you lose after one term, all your clients are gone to somewhere else and you have to build your practice all over again. That makes it real difficult to convince someone to run.”

Of course, one way to solve this would be to go back to the good old days of one-party dominance in Harris County. I sure don’t remember all this hand-wringing about how hard it was to be a judge, never knowing what the voters might do to you, back when the November elections were pre-determined. If nothing changes about how we make judges and the Democrats sweep the judiciary in 2016, thus providing a third term to all those judges that were re-elected this year, will that make Mark Davidson and Scott Brister happy? Mark Bennett makes hash of Davidson’s complaint.

The story then predictably goes into straight-ticket voting and Sen. Dan Patrick’s bill to eliminate it for judicial races, which has the hearts of people like Patti Hart and the Chron’s editorial board going pitter-pat. One of the many ironies of all this is that of the 32 district and civil court judicial races in which the Chron made an endorsement this year, 25 of their preferred candidates won. That’s a 78% success rate, which ain’t too shabby for a bunch of lazy, ignorant voters, as they so nicely characterized the straight-ticket people.

Another irony for you: As Mark noted in his post, the straight ticket vote for each party this year basically canceled each other out. Indeed, the Democratic advantage from straight ticket voting in 2012 was a paltry 2,836 votes – 406,991 to 404,165 in favor of the Democrats. Would you like to know how many Democratic judges won re-election by 2,836 votes or less? Exactly one: Kyle Carter of the 125th District Court, who remained a judge by 1,694 votes. Every other winning Democratic judge had a margin that exceeded the straight-ticket margin: Michael Gomez, the next closest winner, won by 4,071 votes, Jaclanel McFarland won by 5,083, and Ruben Guerrero, Mark Bennett’s least favorite judge, won by 9,015. Every other victorious Democrat won by a five-figure margin, so if you accept the premise that only the non-straight-ticket voters really know what they’re doing, then you should be glad, because they decided all but one of the judicial races. Dan Patrick’s bill is basically about Kyle Carter.

But wait, there’s more. In those halcyon days of Republican hegemony for which Mark Davidson and Scott Brister pine, surely they were aided by straight-ticket voting dominance as well, right? Well, thanks to the magic of the Internet, we can check. Election results on the County Clerk webpage go back through 1996. Here’s how those elections went.

In 1996, straight ticket voting was as follows:

STR – 200,731
STD – 211,533

So Democrats had a 10,802 vote advantage, which did them exactly no good: The only judicial race won by a Democrat was that of Katie Kennedy, whose margin of victory was over 66,000 votes. Republicans won all the other races.

Here’s 1998:

STR – 157,516
STD – 143,783

Now the Rs have the advantage, of just under 14,000 votes. Their smallest margin of victory in a judicial race was about 23,000 votes, meaning that again, straight-ticket voting made no difference to the outcomes.

How about 2000?

STR – 260,705
STD – 264,747

Yes, believe it or not, Democrats had the straight-ticket advantage, even with George Bush at the top of the ticket. And again, it mattered not at all. There were exactly 2 contested judicial races – 337th and County Court At Law #1, both of which the Dems lost. Boy, were these the days or what?

On to 2002:

STR – 185,606
STD – 171,594

The Rs regain the advantage, and again it’s meaningless, as the closest judicial race was decided by 41,000 votes. Will straight-ticket voting ever matter?

The answer is yes, it does, in 2004:

STR – 370,455
STD – 325,097

You would think that with a 45,000 vote advantage in straight-ticket voting, that would be critical to overall Republican success. But it only mattered in one judicial race, the 334th, where Sharon McCally defeated Kathy Stone by 41,813 votes. Republicans won every other judicial race by at least 60,000 votes.

Here’s 2006:

STR – 137,663
STD – 145,865

Another Democratic advantage that amounts to diddly squat, as the Rs once again sweep the judicial races. I suppose you could put an asterisk next to Jim Sharp, who carried Harris County by 1,291 votes in his race for the First Court of Appeals, but since he lost that race it hardly seems worth the effort.

Finally, we come to the two years that everyone agrees is where straight ticket voting was the deal-sealer for the Ds and the Rs, respectively. It’s true that in 2008, the Democratic advantage in straight-ticket voting – 391,488 to 343,919 – is larger than the margin of victory for all victorious Democratic judicial candidate. But look, Democrats didn’t nearly sweep the judiciary in 2008 because of straight-ticket voting, they won all those races because more Democrats voted in Harris County than ever before, and it was that combination of juiced turnout and long-awaited demographic change that did it for them. I suppose you could argue that had the straight-ticket option been outlawed that enough Democratic voters might have quit voting before making it all the way to the end of the ballot to have let some number of Republican judges survive, but if you do make that argument can you really also claim it was because of their merit as judges that saved them? Besides, in the absence of straight-ticket voting its entirely plausible that enough Republican voters would have failed to complete the ballot to cancel things out, and we’d have had approximately the same results as we actually did. We’ll never know, and it’s presumptuous to think we do. Remember, as I’ve noted many times, there was a lot more Republican undervoting in 2004 downballot than there was Democratic undervoting. We just don’t know what might have happened.

You may be thinking at this point “But isn’t the issue that so many more votes are being cast as straight-ticket these days”? It’s true that the trend is upward, but it’s less than you might think. And despite the wailing over 2008, it wasn’t a high-water mark for straight tickets. In 2004, 64.22% of all ballots cast were straight-ticket, 698,895 of 1,088,793. In 2008, the share of straight-ticket ballots dropped to 62.20%, as 739,424 of 1,188,731 were so cast. Did you know that there were more straight-ticket votes cast as a percentage of turnout in 2004 than in 2008, the year in which straight-ticket voting suddenly became this massive problem that had to be solved? I didn’t until I did the research for this post. I’ll bet you $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that no one at the Chron knew it, either. As for 2012, the share was 67.91%, 817,692 out of 1,204,167. My guess is that just as there appears to be a limit to how many people will vote early, there’s likely also a limit to how many people will push the straight-ticket button, and we’re probably pretty close to it.

Oh, and in 2010, the year that straight-ticket voting supposedly gave the Republicans back the bench? They did have a huge advantage in straight ticket votes – 290,355 to 240,479 – but as it happens, their closest victory in a judicial race was just over 57,000 votes, with most races being decided by 80,000 or more. Republicans won in 2010 because they turned out at historic, unprecedented levels, plain and simple. The belief that straight-ticket voting is the key to victory is a myth, a shibboleth, and if it’s not clear by now that this is all about the 2008 results, then it’s not the straight-ticket voters who are lazy and ignorant.

I have more to say on this subject, but this post is long enough. Again, I agree that our system of making judges is problematic, but straight-ticket voting is not the problem, and eliminating it is not a solution. It’s a feel-good measure cloaking a partisan intention, and it should be seen as such.

Time for the biennial attempt to de-fang the Travis County DA

Same story, next chapter.

The Texas Ethics Commission, long criticized for its lax enforcement of public officials, is considering a plan to take over all ethics enforcement from the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has a long history of prosecuting errant state officeholders.

The eight-member Ethics Commission, meeting Thursday in Austin, is scheduled to consider a recommendation “transplanting certain existing investigative and prosecutorial authority and budget from the Travis County Public Integrity Unit to the Texas Ethics Commission.”

“Only the authority and budget relating to the conduct of public officials elected and appointed should be so reassigned,” the recommendation states. “Many of the existing personnel staffing these functions would come across as seamlessly as possible.”

David Reisman, executive director of the Ethics Commission, couldn’t immediately be reached. Tim Sorrells, the agency’s general counsel, confirmed late Wednesday that it was scheduled to discuss the recommendation.

The move came after a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission report last summer criticized the commission for its lax enforcement history, even though it stopped short of recommending that it become a beefed-up enforcement agency for state ethics laws.

News of the Ethics Commission’s move immediately drew criticism from government watchdog groups, who insisted the change would take Texas’ ethics enforcement from bad to worse.

“After all these years of inaction, they want to go and take away the only effective ethics enforcement Texas has and put it in an agency that has done almost nothing,” said Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen.

Noting that watchdog groups were hoping for ramped-up enforcement by the Ethics Commission, not a takeover of the county’s Public Integrity Unit that has prosecuted the only criminal violations, he added: “This is a dream turned into a nightmare.”

We’ve been down this road before, in one form or another, in every legislative session I’ve observed, which goes back to 2003, and undoubtedly well before that. In the past, the main threat had been to move this function into the Attorney General’s office. If the TEC did a reasonable job of enforcement this wouldn’t be a completely ridiculous suggestion, but we know how that goes. It’s not all the TEC’s fault – they know they’re ultimately under the Legislature’s thumb, so it’s good survival strategy on their part to not be too obnoxious. At this point, the best argument for letting the Travis County DA continue in this role is that they are not connected to state government, which gives them an independence no other option would have. I didn’t expect anything to come of this, and it turns out that the TEC has since had second thoughts.

The Texas Ethics Commission backed away Thursday from a controversial proposal to take certain investigative authority away from the Travis County district attorney’s office, but the agency approved two recommendations aimed at enhancing criminal inquiries of state elected officials.

The draft proposal to ask the Legislature to take investigative power away from those local prosecutors — and give it to an agency that has often been described as weak and ineffective — sparked outrage from government watchdogs and strong opposition from the Travis County DA’s office.

It also drew unusually strong condemnation from one of the eight Ethics Commission members, Tom Harrison. A letter from Harrison, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, was read aloud by fellow Commissioner Tom Ramsay. In it, Harrison argued that making the commission the lead prosecutor of state elected officials would frustrate its “primary purpose” and set up a statutory conflict of interest.

“Members of the commission are appointed by elected state leaders and would be enforcing criminal actions against those same elected officials,” Harrison wrote, according to Ramsay. “If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.”

In face of stiff opposition, Jim Clancy, one of the commissioners who had made the proposal, quickly backed off and said the intent was never to gut the Travis DA’s budget and power. But he said the commission needs more money and authority to to pursue serious corruption allegations.

So that’s probably it for this particular variation, but as always it bears watching, because sooner or later something like it will pop up again. EoW and Burka have more.

Let the endorsement race begin!

We may not have a date for the SD06 special election, but that doesn’t mean the race hasn’t begun. In particular, the race to begin collecting endorsements has begun, and both major declared candidates have announced wins. Sylvia Garcia has the AFL-CIO on her side.

[Wednesday] Harris County AFL-CIO COPE Members met with Senate District 6 candidates and by a landslide voted to endorse Sylvia Garcia as the leader they know will fight for fair jobs, healthcare and education in Austin.

“Sylvia Garcia has been a strong supporter of working families’ issues from her days with the City of Houston to Commissioners Court. She has the experience and knowledge to represent the people of District 6 and will address critical needs like education and healthcare. Sylvia will be an outstanding Senator for the State of Texas,” said Richard Shaw, Harris County AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer.

Meanwhile, Carol Alvarado has the firefighters.

State Representative Carol Alvarado has received the backing of Houston Firefighters in her campaign for Texas State Senate District 6. She is running to succeed the late Senator Mario Gallegos, a former Houston Firefighter who passed away in October.

Alvarado has been endorsed by the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341, which represents over 3,800 men and women who serve in the nation’s third largest fire department.

“I am honored to receive the support of Houston Firefighters,” Alvarado said. “These men and women put themselves on the line every day to protect the people of this community, and it means a great deal that they are supporting with me, particularly since Senator Gallegos was one of their own.”

“Mario Gallegos was our brother,” said Local 341 President Jeff Caynon. “While we still grieve his passing, we are proud to stand with Carol Alvarado to succeed him in the Senate. She is a strong advocate for firefighters and public safety and we believe she is the best candidate to continue Mario’s work.”

We have discussed the value of endorsements many times, and while that value varies with the race and the endorsement in question, they ought to be quite valuable in a special election like this one, since endorsements like these should translate into some number of votes from the members of the endorsing groups. Especially in a race where there’s hardly any difference between the candidates in terms of issues or record of public service, endorsements like these give people like me whose impression going in is that either candidate would be fine by them a reason to pick one over the other. Finally, if there are any other potential candidates out there still weighing their options, as Rick Noriega is said to be doing, the longer they take to decide the more of these they’ll miss out on, thus making it that much harder to win when and if they do jump in. It’s in both Sylvia Garcia’s and Carol Alvarado’s interest to keep the field small, or at least the field of candidates with a realistic path to victory.

Constable Trevino’s day in court

It went about as you’d expect.

Constable Victor Trevino

Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino and his attorney said Tuesday they expect the longtime law enforcement officer to be cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with allegations he abused his official role and used charity donations for personal use.

“On behalf of my family and myself, I just want to thank the community for their overwhelming support and their prayers,” Trevino said after a brief court appearance Tuesday morning. “We’ve cooperated, and we’re going to continue to cooperate and see this through all the way.”

[…]

“We’re very eager for our day in court,” said attorney Chip Lewis. “It’s a sad day in the community when Constable Trevino’s good name has been sullied because of these charges, and we are very eager for the opportunity to vindicate him and return his good name.”

Trevino and Lewis did not answer questions as they left court, but reiterated that Trevino will not step down despite being indicted.

Well, Jerry Eversole expressed confidence that he would be cleared of all charges, too, so take all that for what it’s worth. I know nothing about this case beyond what has been reported, and I firmly believe in the presumption of innocence, I’m just saying that such pronouncements really don’t have much predictive value. It should also be noted that Eversole did not resign until after his original trial, which ended in a hung jury, a few weeks before he finally took a plea. I still think Constable Trevino should formally hand off the day to day operations of Precinct 6 to someone else in his office until this is resolved one way or another, but staying in office until then is not unusual. The story does not say, but the caption under the photo that goes with the story says that the case has been reset for January, so barring any surprises we’ll have to wait till then for the next update.