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John Devine

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

Judicial candidates are subject to strict campaign finance restrictions, making it difficult to get their names out across a state of 28 million. And they must walk a difficult line as they campaign, running as partisans without compromising their judicial impartiality.

That means judicial candidates’ fates often rest with the top of the ticket — which is perhaps why no Democrat has been elected to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1994. This year, five Democrats are vying for six seats on the state’s two high courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, respectively.

These low-information, down-ballot races are rarely competitive, but this year, as El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke draws attention to the top of the ticket in an unusually tight campaign for U.S. Senate, Democrats hope their judges can ride his coattails to the state’s highest benches.

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

“I do think to a large extent that my success will depend on how the entire ticket of my party goes,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, one of three Republican incumbents on the court up for re-election this fall. In that context, he said, he feels confident. “Of course, Beto O’Rourke’s popularity has certainly got Republicans thinking that maybe Texas is getting a little purpler. But I still feel like it’s going to be a Republican sweep.”

If anyone is poised to spoil that sweep, it’s R.K. Sandill, a long-serving Democratic district judge in Harris County who’s consistently outraised his opponent, Justice John Devine. In addition to an impressive cash-on-hand tally, an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle and victories in the Houston Bar Association and Texas Bar Association polls, Sandill faces perhaps the most controversial incumbent on the high court. Before being elected to the high court in 2012, Devine was sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Devine has also boasted publicly that he was arrested 37 times protesting outside abortion clinics.

But that history may not hurt Devine’s chances, Sandill said in an interview last week.

“It doesn’t matter who the Republican [candidate] is in a statewide office in Texas,” Sandill says, smiling but resigned across the table at a downtown Houston coffee shop. “It’s been 24 years. There’s no vulnerability. We all live and die together on the Democratic ticket.”

That’s not entirely true – there’s always some variation in the vote totals for Supreme Court and CCA justices, just as there’s variation in the vote totals for District Court judges. In 2016, Eva Guzman got 4,884,441 votes while Paul Green received 4,758,334; among Democrats, Dori Contreras Garza picked up 3,608,634 votes while Mike Westergren got 3,378,163. Didn’t make any difference then, but if we’re sufficiently close to even it becomes a live possibility that one or two Dems win while the others lose.

Beyond that, I covered some of this in my earlier post about Sharon Keller. I note that the Trib discusses the impending end of straight ticket voting, which could have a negative effect on Republican incumbent justices and possibly judges here in Harris County. I’m gonna wait and see what the data says over the next couple of cycles before I make any pronouncements on that.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.

RK Sandill for State Supreme Court

Very good news, from the inbox:

Judge RK Sandill

The Supreme Court of Texas is elected to serve all of the nearly 28 million residents of our great state. Yet, after more than two decades of one-party rule, today’s Court is increasingly out of touch with the needs of everyday Texans.

On issues from public school finance to equal protection under the law, our state Supreme Court is ignoring its duties and instead catering to an extreme, special interest agenda.

It is time for a change.

I want you to know I’m running for the Supreme Court of Texas, Place 4, to restore an independent voice to our state’s highest judicial body and to focus on the rule of law, rather than a fringe ideological agenda.

I am a Texan — the proud son of immigrants — who grew up in a military family that knows the meaning of service. I have been a district court judge in our state’s largest county for nearly nine years. I am a husband, dad and cancer survivor. And I am running to serve all Texans.

I know this race won’t be easy. Texas is a big state and changing the status quo will be a challenge. I’m ready for the fight. Will you join me?

It is time our state’s highest court got back to working on behalf of everyday Texans.

I know Judge Sandill personally, and will attest he’s a super guy. He was elected in the 2008 Harris County Democratic wave, and won re-election in 2012 and 2016; he’s not on the ballot next year, so he does not have to decide between running again for the same position and trying to move up. His opponent is the execrable John Devine, who was the one Supreme Court justice to dissent when that court originally declined to take up the appeal of the Houston spousal benefits lawsuit. Devine isn’t qualified to be a district court judge, but there he is on the top bench in the state. Almost anyone would be an improvement, but Judge Sandill would be a vastly better jurist. Here’s his website and Facebook page. Get to know him if you don’t already, and give him some support.

2012 Republican primary runoffs

All the results are here. In the end, Ted Cruz won a pretty solid victory. I’ll note that in the last two publicly released polls, PPP had Cruz up by 10, whereas Baselice & Associates claimed Dewhurst was up by 5. Oops. The latter poll sampled people who hadn’t actually voted in the May primary, which sure seems like a stretch now. By the way, Baselice & Associates is the pollster that did that first Metro poll. Two completely different universes, and one silly poll result doesn’t cast a shadow on another, it’s just a reminder that polling isn’t destiny.

In the Congressional primaries of interest, Randy Weber in CD14 and Roger Williams in CD25 won easily, while Steve Stockman won a closer race for CD36. Multiple incumbents went down to defeat, most spectacularly Sen. Jeff Wentworth in SD25. Am I the only one who thinks that he might have been better off switching parties? Hard to imagine he could have done worse in November than this. Nutjob John Devine won himself a spot on the Supreme Court, which like the Senate just got appreciably more stupid. I will console myself with the thought that Devine, who is in many ways a huckster, is highly likely to run afoul of the code of judicial conduct at some point. Speaking of party switching, former Democrat Chuck Hopson is now an ex-Representative, as are Sid “Sonogram” Miller and Jim Landtroop. The only legislative incumbent to survive was the other party switcher, JM Lozano, who now faces a tough race in November. The runoff was even hard on former incumbents, as Warren Chisum lost his bid for the Railroad Commission. However, Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman did survive, and former SBOE member Geraldine Miller got her spot back.

In other races of interest, Rick Miller won the nomination in HD26, thus likely delaying the de-honkification of the Fort Bend County delegation for at least another two years. By my count, of the eight Parent PAC candidates in the runoff, all but Wentworth and Hopson won, which is a pretty impressive result. Maybe, just maybe, the Lege will be marginally less hostile to public education next year.

Finally, in Harris County, it took awhile for the results to come in, but Louis Guthrie won the right to face Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the fall. That will be one to watch. Did any of these results surprise you? Leave a comment and let me know.

UPDATE: Make that five of eight for Parent PAC. When I went to bed, Trent McKnight was leading in HD68, but by the time I got up this morning he had lost.

Election night returns

For your convenience:

Statewide Democratic results

Looks good for Paul Sadler. Going to be a long night in CDs 23 and 33.

Statewide Republican results

Ted Cruz has a modest early lead. Wackjob John Devine is leading Supreme Court Justice David Medina. Steve Stockman is leading in CD36, and Donna Campbell is crushing Jeff Wentworth. The crazy flag is flying high.

Harris County Democratic results

Looking good for Gene Wu, Alan Rosen, and especially Erica Lee, who has over 70% in the disputed HCDE runoff.

Harris County GOP results

Louis Guthrie will get to oppose Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

I’ll post full results in the morning.

Devine versus Medina

So why did onetime District Court Judge and frequent candidate John Devine decide to challenge Supreme Court Justice David Medina in this year’s GOP primary? A couple of his colleagues in Harris County offer a reason that isn’t very flattering.

Devine “couldn’t provide us with a philosophical reason (to oppose Medina). He could not point to one opinion that he had a problem with,” said Scott Link, a former Harris County district judge who had set up the lunch with Devine.

“It was just, ‘I could beat a guy with a Mexican name,’ ” Link said Thursday. “I was offended on several levels.”

[…]

Speaking by phone Thursday, Link said he set up the July 2011 lunch at Brennan’s of Houston — and invited fellow lawyer Frank Harmon — to try to talk Devine out of opposing Medina, a candidate whom Link and Harmon supported.

Devine declined suggestions that he target another race, they said.

Devine received 32 percent of the vote in the May 29 Republican primary, forcing a runoff against Medina (39 percent), a member of the state’s highest civil court since 2004.

Harmon, a 40-year lawyer, confirmed Link’s account of the lunch.

“This happened, and it’s awful,” Harmon said. “He said he wanted a job and people with Mexican names tend to lose in Republican primaries, and regrettably there is some evidence to support that.”

Harmon said Devine pointed to two Hispanic candidates defeated in the 2010 GOP primaries: Victor Carillo, a former Texas Railroad Commission chairman, and Leo Vasquez, a former Harris County tax assessor-
collector.

I don’t much like having to defend John Devine, who’s a nut and who scored very poorly on the Houston Bar Association poll (which, yes, I know is more popularity contest than anything else), but in a court of law this would be called “hearsay” and would be inadmissible. Devine has since vigorously denied the allegation. You can see his full statement here. Obviously, I wasn’t there for this meeting, and I have no knowledge of who did or didn’t say what. Devine has lost a lot more elections than he’s won and really isn’t that strong a candidate, but Medina has weaknesses as well, including that arson saga and his financial situation. He should be vulnerable, as his 39% performance in May suggests. Whoever wins the runoff will be on the bench next year, as there is no Democrat running (sigh). We’ll see if this story has any effect.