With the opening day of bill-filing season comes the recurrence of a not-so-old chestnut that like many other bills is a solution in search of a problem.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said he wants to end straight-ticket voting for judges because the political winds often determine the fate of a judicial candidate instead of qualifications.
“Most voters have no idea of who they are voting for, for judges,” Patrick said.
Patricia Kilday Hart calls Sen. Patrick’s bill a “step in the right direction”. Sorry, but I can’t agree with that. I’ll stipulate that most voters don’t know who they’re voting for in judicial races. Unless you’re a lawyer or otherwise have regular business with the legal system, how can you possibly evaluate judges and wannabe judges? The problem I have with Sen. Patrick’s solution is that it does nothing to add to the publicly-available body of knowledge about judicial candidates. If anything, it subtracts from it. Partisan identity is a blunt instrument to be sure, but it does at least tell you something about Judge Johnson or Attorney/Candidate Smith. How is taking away that bit of information going to help the average voter know who they’re voting for?
As I see it there are more pressing problems with the way we elect judges in this state, and Sen. Patrick’s bill does nothing to address them. As I’ve said before, big players like the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and especially Texans for Lawsuit Reform, of which the state Supreme Court is a wholly owned subsidiary, will not be constrained in any way by Sen. Patrick’s proposal, or by non-partisan judicial elections, or by retention elections in an appoint-and-retain system. For that matter, the ability of a crank with a grievance against a sitting judge to finance an opponent for that judge would also be left unmolested. If the concern is about the effect of money on our judicial elections – and Lord knows, there needs to be concern about this – then making judicial elections publicly financed is likely to be the optimal solution, assuming they can withstand the inevitable lawsuit and a suitable funding mechanism can be found. If you think that electing judges at all is the problem, I can sympathize with that, but then you need to propose a system that can handle the appointment of nearly 2000 non-municipal judges statewide that isn’t likely to become a patronage mill. Again, I agree that our system of partisan election of judges is problematic. It’s just that all of the proposed solutions I’ve seen so far do nothing to actually address those problems.