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Wallace Jefferson is still going on about judicial elections

In an interview in The Atlantic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson rides his favorite hobbyhorse of partisan judicial elections.

Hon. Wallace Jefferson

I’ve been talking about this for a long time. And I am not the first one. Republican or Democrat Chief Justices for the last 30 or 40 years have been calling on the legislature to change the way judges come to the bench in Texas. It is a broken system. We shouldn’t have partisan elections. I do not like the concept of a Republican or Democratic judge. I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system. So I would change it completely if I were king.

The sad reality, given the system that we have, is that if a judge wants to remain on the bench they have to find a way to reach the voters. And the only way to do that in Texas is in the media market. If you are running a statewide campaign, there are about 26 million people in Texas. You have Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, and all are major media markets. Even to mail campaign literature, you’ve got to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I don’t defend the system. I would want to change it.

[...]

In your free time one day, take a look at the ballot in Harris County—that’s Houston—in a presidential year. If you look at that ballot, there will be several pages of judges who are standing for election, from the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals … There are district court judges, county court judges, probate judges, municipal court judges. In that one year in Harris County, there are probably 60 or 70 judges on that ballot. The voters have no clue about the experience or background of these candidates for office, and so what happens in Texas is that voters increasingly vote based upon partisan affiliation.

And we have the ability to straight-ticket vote here and so, in 2008, when I was on the ballot, it was McCain versus Obama, and Republicans in Texas by a large margin voted for McCain but they voted straight-ticket. So they voted McCain and every single Republican down the ballot. And in Harris County that year, Obama was extraordinarily popular so they voted for Obama and every Democrat down the ballot. I won [my] election easily, [but] in Houston there was almost a complete sweep of Republican judges — they were replaced by Democrats.

That makes no sense. These votes are not based upon the merits of the judge but on partisan affiliation and if its not party affiliation it’s the sound of your name. I said that almost all the Republican judges in Harris County lost—well, there were three exceptions. And in each of those cases, the Democratic candidate had an ethnic-sounding name. That’s no way to differentiate among candidates. And if it’s not partisan affiliation or the sound of your name, it’s how much money you can raise—which, as I said, undermines confidence in impartial justice.

We’ve discussed this before. I’m just going to note the following tidbit I learned from querying the Contributor records at the Texas Ethics Commission:

Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 05/21/2001
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 8,015.00, 02/20/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 06/27/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/31/2005
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 03/05/2007
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 7,500.00, 06/27/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 10/14/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/14/2008

When Wallace Jefferson is ready to talk about how judicial elections are financed, then I’ll be ready to take him seriously. Until then, as far as I’m concerned none of his proposals have any chance of actually achieving the reforms he says he wants.

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5 Comments

  1. Joel says:

    i don’t understand your scepticism, kuff. he calls out the corrupting effect of campaign funds in the very first paragraph:

    “I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system.”

    it seems like you are holding him to an unfair standard. without the funding he needed to win, he would not have the pulpit he has to advocate reform. you can’t expect him to win according to a set of standards that his opponents wouldn’t adopt.

  2. Joel, the problem I have is that the solutions Wallace Jefferson has been offering would have absolutely no effect on how judicial elections are financed. He talks about making the races non-partisan or removing them from straight ticket voting, but how does that change the financial aspect? Surely the likes of TLR aren’t going to go away if judicial candidates lack a partisan label on the ballot. My solution is public financing of judicial elections, but even I will admit (and have said so in previous posts) that in John Roberts’ America that may no longer be feasible. Maybe Wallace Jefferson could talk a little bit about that, too. When he does, I’ll be more than happy to listen.

  3. Ross says:

    Kuff, who decides how much a judicial candidate gets to spend? Where does the money come from? What happens if one candidate is independently wealthy, and wants to spend more than his opponent, using his own money? Could I support a candidate with my own money, buying commercials and print advertising singing the praises of my chosen candidate?

  4. Ross, those are legitimate questions. I strongly disagree with the logic of “Citizens United” and see no constitutional problems with campaign contribution limits. That’s not the world we live in, and I admit my preferred solution is not workable as a result. My point remains that what Wallace Jefferson is proposing isn’t workable either, for the fundamental reason that it doesn’t actually address the problem he says he wants to solve.

  5. Jed says:

    well, there are additional problems that stem from the partisan nature of the elections, so he wouldn’t be accomplishing nothing, but your point about the importance of $$ reform is well taken.

    incidentally (not that these cases matter much in Texas politics), Citizens United is old news. the other shoe dropped earlier this month with McCutcheon, effectively eliminating what few limits still existed on campaign contributions by individuals.

    all of which makes the timing of that just-released decades-overdue political science finding that monied elite interests really do control politics feel like a twisted joke.

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