Nobody is running for re-election on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
All three Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges whose terms expire in 2014 — one-third of the nine-member panel — have elected not to seek another term, setting the stage for unusually high turnover on the state’s highest criminal court.
“This is a lot leaving,” said Chuck Mallin, appellate chief in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. “It’s always a scary proposition, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Judges Cathy Cochran, Tom Price and Paul Womack each confirmed that they will not run for re-election in 2014. At least eight individuals have filed forms indicating they have appointed treasurers for campaigns to fill those seats, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. Candidates don’t officially file to run for state offices until later this year.
Just how different the court — and its decisions — will be after the elections will depend on who the winners are and the judicial philosophies they bring to the bench, she said.
Mallin, who has practiced before the court since the 1970s, said that he has viewed the its decisions over the last decade as “middle of the road.” And that’s where he’d like the court to remain.
“You never know what they’re going to do when they get on the bench,” Mallin said. “There can be a major change, and I’ve seen the swing.”
“The voters don’t really pay much attention to judicial races like they should,” he said. “They’re probably some of the most important offices that citizens are allowed to vote for.”
I certainly agree with that last statement. Grits takes issue with that “middle of the road” characterization, however.
Come again? The only thing more preposterous than calling the Court of Criminal Appeals under Presiding Judge Sharon Keller “middle of the road” is for a media outlet to quote a prosecutor mouthing such an absurdity without providing a rebuttal.
As of this writing, there’s not a single “middle of the road” vote on the entire court. Instead, the spectrum runs from conservative judges who rarely side with the defense to a more knee-jerk faction led by Judge Keller who reflexively rule for the government in virtually every circumstance.
The three departing judges fall into the former group, at least occasionally providing common-sense ballast to offset the Big-Government Conservatism of Keller and Co. In any other high court in America they’d be considered part of the extreme right, but on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals they’re ostensible “moderates.” By contrast, Keller’s cohort often come off less like judges than prosecutors in robes.
What Mallin called the “middle of the road” in reality turns out to be the right-hand shoulder. And if one or two of these departing judges are replaced by Keller clones, there’s a real risk the court will just veer off into a ditch.
The best we hope for is for the voters to have real choices in the elections to replace these three judges. That means actually having contested elections in November, not just in March. The last time there were no unopposed candidates for the CCA was in 2002, an election in which these three retiring judges were all on the ballot. It’s hard to recruit for these statewide judicial races. You’re not going to raise any money as a candidate, especially not as a Democrat, but you do have to put your life and livelihood on hold while to travel around the state doing your part to represent yourself and your party. No one but the most dedicated voter will even know who you are or what you’re running for. That’s even before we discuss the long odds of actually winning as a D. But none of that matters now. If Wendy Davis really is running for Governor – and all signs point to Yes at this time – she needs a full ticket running alongside her. We need three qualified folks – seven, if you throw in the Supreme Court races – to step up and take the plunge. This is as even a playing field and as good a shot as you’re going to get. Texpatriate has more.