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Debra Lehrmann

The Trump effect and the State Supreme Court

The Trib touches on a subject I addressed awhile ago.

Three Republican members of the Texas Supreme Court running for re-election are facing Democratic challengers who say they may have a chance in the solid-red state with Donald Trump at the top of the ballot.

Democrats point to recent polls that show Trump beating Hillary Clinton by just four points in Texas to explain a possible shift in Lone Star State politics. The Democratic National Committee announced plans in September to open headquarters in Houston to capitalize on the presidential race as a way to help down-ballot candidates.

But only one of the Democratic candidates for Texas Supreme Court — Dori Contreras Garza — has raised even close to enough money to be competitive. And even her bid is a long shot in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the court since 1994. The court has nine justices who are elected statewide to staggered six-year terms.

The rest of the story is a profile of the three races and the candidates in them. The premise about fundraising is more than a little ridiculous because in all four of the cases cited, the amount raised by the candidate in question was less than $100K, which is basically a drop on a sidewalk in August. I mean, that’s modest money for a district City Council race in Houston. It literally would have zero effect on a statewide campaign, which for these races is all about getting one’s name out before the voters. I guarantee you, nobody who isn’t a political junkie or personally acquainted with a given candidate will have any idea who they are.

So, as is so often the case, these races will be determined by overall turnout. I’ve already shown how in a scenario where the margin between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is small, the chances that one or more downballot Democrats could be elected grow, as Democratic candidates have seen less of a dropoff in their vote total from the top of the ticket in recent years. I wrote that post after a poll came out showing Trump leading Clinton by six points. More recently, we have seen polls where Trump’s lead was two, three, and four points. That could be overstating how close the race really is, and it may well be that there are other factors such as a higher than usual share of Republicans who will support Clinton but not any other Democrat that will ensure the GOP statewide hegemony remains intact. But as I said in that earlier post, it is not crazy to think that a Dem could win statewide this year. And if one or more do, it won’t be because they raised $10K more than their opponents.

Endorsement watch: More courts

The Chron has a bunch of judicial race endorsements to make, beginning with the First and 14th Courts of Appeals.

1st Court of Appeals, Chief Justice: Sherry Radack

Both Republican incumbent Sherry Radack and challenger Jim Peacock strongly agree that service on this bench constitutes a great honor. That honor should go to Radack, 65, for another term, although Peacock came as close any challenger has to convincing us that the breadth of his experience as a litigator and the need for more philosophical diversity on the court would justify a switch. But ultimately, it’s hard for us to vote to unseat a sitting justice who is doing a good job, which Radack is.

Justice, 1st Court of Appeals,Place 4: Barbara Gardner

Plato imaged a world run by philosopher-kings, but Republican judge Evelyn Keyes is the closest that Houston gets. Our resident philosopher-judge, Keyes is a member of the prestigious American Law Institute, which helps write the influential model penal code. A graduate of University of Houston Law Center, Keyes also has a doctorate in philosophy from Rice University and a doctorate in English from the University of Texas. She’s penned numerous papers on legal philosophy, exploring the foundational underpinnings of our entire judicial system and arguing about the concept of justice itself.

Now Keyes is running for her third term – a “last hurrah,” she told the editorial board, before she is aged out under state law. If elected, Keyes will be forced to retire after four years of her six-year term and will be replaced by a gubernatorial appointment.

Justice, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2: Kevin Jewell

This race for an open seat offers voters two very different candidates who would each bring great strengths in their own ways.

Republican Kevin Jewell, a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, is board certified in civil appellate law and heads up the appellate practice at the Chamberlain Hrdlicka law firm. Jewell, 48, has spent his career practicing in appellate courts and his resume is practically tailor-made for this position.

Justice, 14th Court of Appeals,Place 9: Tracy Elizabeth Christopher

Justice Tracy Christopher is one of the “smartest, most reasonable judges” on this court. That’s not us talking – that’s her Democratic opponent, Peter M. Kelly, during a meeting with the editorial board. It is the kind of praise that should encourage voters to keep Christopher, a Republican, on the bench. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Christopher, 60, is board certified in civil trial law and personal injury trial law, and served for 15 years on the 295th Civil District Court before her appointment to this bench in 2009. She’s received stellar bar poll ratings, and we were particularly impressed by her insight as to how the state Legislature has overridden common law in Texas, especially in medical malpractice and other torts.

And for the State Supreme Court.

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 3: Debra Lehrmann

Justice Debra Lehrmann, 59, has spent six years serving on the Texas Supreme Court and before that she was a Tarrant County family court judge for 22 years. In that time she has acquired a reputation as a hardworking and respected jurist with a record of success dating back to her days at University of Texas School of Law.

Her Democratic opponent and former judge of the 214th District Court in Nueces County, Mike Westergren, says that there needs to be more balance on the all-Republican court. Lehrmann agrees but they differ as to the nature of the deficit. Westergren argues for more ideological balance, while Lehrmann maintains the justices need to continue to challenge each other.

Justice Dori Garza

Justice Dori Garza

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 5: Dori Contreras Garza

What is Republican incumbent, Justice Paul Green, doing wrong on the Texas Supreme Court? According to his Democratic challenger, Justice Dori Garza, not much.

She told the editorial board that she’s not running against Green personally, but instead to provide greater diversity on the court.

The first in her family to receive a college degree, Garza, 58, attended night school at the University of Houston Law Center and in 2002 was elected to the 13th Court of Appeals, which stretches from Matagorda County south to the U.S.-Mexico border. She’s been re-elected twice and in 2010 was one of three candidates recommended by the Texas congressional delegation to serve as a federal judge in Corpus Christi.

If elected, she’ll bring different personal and ideological perspectives to a court that’s been critiqued as leaning in favor of corporations and state authority at the expense of everyday Texans.

Justice, Supreme Court, Place 9: Eva Guzman

It took 100 pages for the Texas Supreme Court to explain that our state’s school funding system was constitutional, if imperfect. But Justice Eva Guzman’s passionate concurrence should light a fire under Texas politicians who may think that winning at the Texas Supreme Court absolves them of any duty to improve our public schools.

They endorsed challenger Barbara Gardner over incumbent Evelyn Keyes because Judge Keyes will have to resign after four years due to the mandatory retirement age of 75. The main thing about both of these endorsement posts is that they basically like all of the candidates. They have a couple of clear preferences, but no races in which they consider only one candidate qualified. Consider that another piece of evidence to suggest that our oft-maligned system of partisan elections for judges maybe isn’t as bad as its frequently made out to be. My Q&A for Dori Garza is here, and I’ve got Q&As lined up for Jim Peacock and Candance White, so look for them soon.

Perry appoints Lehrmann

No surprise at all.

Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Judge Debra Lehrmann to the Place 3 seat that Harriet O’Neill will soon vacate on the Texas Supreme Court. Lehrmann, a Fort Worth District Court judge, won the Republican nomination for that seat in a runoff against former state Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs.

This is exactly what I expected when Justice O’Neill announced she was stepping down. Any other outcome would have been a huge upset.

O’Neill to resign from Supreme Court

State Supreme Court Justice Harriet O’Neill, who announced last year that she would not run for re-election, has now announced that she will step down from the Court in June.

She told Gov. Rick Perry and the other members of the court today that she will step down from the bench on June 20.

O’Neill, a Republican initially elected to the court in 1998, has been a judge for 18 years. She announced last year she wouldn’t seek reelection and there’s been wide speculation that she would leave the court before her term ends in January. The governor gets to appoint someone to serve the rest of the term. Among the choices are the three candidates who’ve been nominated by the major parties: Republican Debra Lehrmann, Democrat Jim Sharp, and Libertarian William Bryan Strange III. Perry isn’t bound to choose any of them, but naming, say, Lehrmann, would give her the fundraising advantages of an incumbent appellate judge.

I think the odds that Perry names Lehrmann to replace O’Neill are approximately 100%, unless Lehrmann for some odd reason asks not to be named. Honestly, there’s no good reason for him to do otherwise. As an added bonus, he’d then get to name Lehrmann’s successor to her District Court bench in Tarrant County. Barring anything strange, I don’t see how this doesn’t happen.

Runoff wrapup

Here are the Republican and Democratic runoff results from yesterday. With the exception of Marc Brown, who came from behind to defeat Danny Dexter in the GOP runoff for the 180th Criminal District Court, everyone who led in early voting won. In the one statewide contest, the establishment-backed Debra Lehrmann, a family court judge from Fort Worth, held off social conservative favorite Rick Green for the Place 3 Supreme Court nomination. The more mainstream Marsha Farney defeated Brian Russell in the runoff for the Republican nomination to replace wingnut Cynthia Dunbar on the State Board of Education. Those were setbacks for the far right, but they did well in legislative races.

Republican voters in Lubbock and four other counties ousted long-time state Rep. Jones in favor of Charles Perry, a Tea Party organizer who campaigned for change and apparently got voters worked up about his candidacy: The runoff drew 17,501 voters — more than most primaries in March turned out. There’s no Democrat ahead, so Perry will take a chair in the House next January.

[…]

John Frullo upset the establishment candidate in Lubbock’s other race for the Texas House, an open seat where Republican Rep. Carl Isett decided not to seek reelection. Isett endorsed Frullo and helped finance and run his campaign. And they overcame endorsements from the likes of state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, for Mark Griffin. The former Texas Tech regent nearly won the race in March, but a last minute mailer in that round undercut his lead and set the table for his loss in the runoff. Frullo will face Democrat Carol Morgan in November.

Frullo, Perry, and Van Taylor in Plano all had significant support from Tea Party supporters and from voters upset with incumbents in general. And their victories came in a week in which legislative Republicans pulled together a new group designed to co-opt some Tea Party ideas and to repair the fracture that appeared in this year’s GOP primaries, and to do so before the November general election.

Taylor beat former Plano City Councilwoman Mabrie Griffith Jackson, who was endorsed by former Rep. Brian McCall. Taylor had the Tea Party folks (many of whom supported the third candidate, Wayne Richard, in the March primary) and also had endorsements from two other Collin County lawmakers, Reps. Jodie Laubenberg of Parker and Ken Paxton of McKinney. That wasn’t even close, with Taylor — dubbed “Moving Van” by Jackson for his recent move into the district — pulling 58 percent in the runoff. There’s no Democrat in that race, so Taylor is on his way to Austin.

The only legislative runoff on the Democratic side also saw an incumbent getting ousted.

State Rep. Norma Chávez, the brawler of the El Paso delegation, lost the most important fight of her 14-year political career Tuesday night.

Assistant County Attorney Naomi Gonzalez ousted Chávez in a bitter, high-dollar runoff election for the House District 76 seat.
Personal attacks between the two Democrats were routine as they racked up contributions totaling nearly $1 million. Much of the money went for negative ads.

Gonzalez, 31, talked less about herself than her opponent. She made her campaign a referendum against Chávez, 49.

She said that Chávez’s confrontational approach, one that put her at odds with other members of the El Paso delegation, had rendered her ineffective.

“This was a tough race, but we were focused on change, and the message resonated with the voters,” Gonzalez said. “We talked about the issues, the good and the bad. In the end, people decided to restore integrity in the district.”

The Trib has a full report of results.

Finally, a word on turnout.

Turnout in Harris County was less than 1.5 percent, except in the Humble-Kingwood area, where the [HD127] race between [winner Dan] Huberty and [Susan] Curling had grown increasingly bitter and expensive in recent weeks.

“Kingwood always comes out to vote,” said election judge Jzarela-Arethea “Yogi” Dougherty at Humble Independent School District’s James D. Eggers Instructional Support Center. “They’d come out at midnight if the doors were open.”

“It’s always high,” said [Jared] Woodfill, the county’s GOP chairman [who won his own runoff], “because it’s a Republican stronghold.” Woodfill, who was involved in a runoff himself, said the normally high interest among Kingwood area voters was stoked even higher by the expensive race between Huberty and Curling.

Woodfill’s Democratic Party counterpart, Gerry Birnberg, attributed low voter turnout in his party’s runoff to general voter satisfaction with the candidates running. “I believe that a reason there’s a muted turnout is because the candidates are all easily qualified,” Birnberg said.

Final turnout on the Republican side was 42,918; for the Democrats it was 15,109. Both totals were higher than I thought they’d be. Note that on the Democratic side, turnout in this year’s runoffs was higher than it was in 2006, when there were contests for Senate, Lt. Governor, and the first Borris Miles/Al Edwards matchup. In that context, I’d say Democratic turnout was pretty decent.