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judicial races

There’s no reason to trust the Republican study to “reform” the judicial election process

Oh, hell no.

After a punishing election for Republican judges, state leaders are set to take a long look at Texas’ often-criticized judicial selection system — a partisan election structure that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has described as “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law creating a commission to study the issue — signaling that the GOP-led Legislature could overhaul the system as soon as 2021. That move comes after Democrats killed a sweeping reform proposal that Abbott had quietly backed.

In Texas, one of just a few states that maintains a system of partisan judicial selection all the way up through its high courts, judges are at the mercy of the political winds. They are required to run as partisans but expected to rule impartially. They are forced to raise money from the same lawyers who will appear before them in court. And in their down-ballot, low-information races, their fates tend to track with the candidates at the top of the ticket.

That means political waves that sweep out of office good and bad, experienced and inexperienced judges alike. And while sweeps are perennial problems for the judiciary, 2018’s elections “set records,” said Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice.

Democrats, riding on the coattails of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, left the election with majorities on appeals courts where they had previously held zero seats. Republicans were entirely shut out of major urban counties. Voters, largely uninformed about judicial races, differentiated very little between well-funded, experienced candidates and those who had done little but throw their hats in the ring. The judiciary lost hundreds of years of experience.

“Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind,” Hecht warned lawmakers in January, exhorting them to change the system.

But reform is similarly fraught with politics. Voters don’t like having choices taken away from them, even if vanishingly few recognize judicial candidates’ names on the ballot. And any new system has to win the approval of both parties, as a two-thirds majority in each chamber is required for the constitutional amendment needed to change the system.

[…]

Texas Republicans dominate the state’s judiciary: All nine members on each of the state’s two high courts are Republicans, as are lower-court judges across much of the state. But that dominance began to wilt after last fall’s elections, particularly on intermediate courts of appeals, where Democrats now hold majorities on 7 of 14 courts.

After scores of Republican judges lost their jobs last fall, Abbott set about appointing many of them back to the bench. He also became more vocal on the issue of judicial selection reform.

Eyebrows went up in February, when he tweeted a Houston Chronicle column criticizing the partisan judicial election system. The governor commented, “We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”

Advocates began to believe this might be the year to push the issue — or at least to tee it up for a big swing in 2021. It was around that time that a group of would-be reformers — attorneys, former judges and donors — formed a non-profit organization, Citizens for Judicial Excellence in Texas, to push the issue in Austin. One lobbyist registered to represent the group at the Capitol this spring.

With powerful supporters in his ear calling for change, Abbott was also pushing the issue more quietly. In March, he met with state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Lubbock. Two days later, on the Legislature’s filing deadline, Landgraf proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overhauled the system, centralizing much of the power to pick judges in the governor’s office.

The Landgraf pitch — which ultimately stalled out for a lack of bipartisan support — would have scrapped the partisan judicial election system, replacing it with a multi-step process: gubernatorial appointment, qualifications evaluation by a non-partisan commission, Texas Senate confirmation and retention elections. Since judges tend to win retention elections, barring scandal, the proposal would effectively have allowed Abbott to appoint judges likely to serve for three four-year terms — giving Republican-appointed judges a dozen years in power even as Texas creaks toward the political center.

Landgraf’s proposal carved out small, rural — conservative — counties, where voters would still have had the opportunity to elect judges on partisan ballots, unless they voted to opt into the appointment system.

Landgraf’s pitch, blessed by Abbott, didn’t sit well with Democrats, who demanded to know why the urban centers they and their colleagues represent would be treated differently from Republican strongholds. They feared overhauling the system would mean losing the new class of Democratic judges elected in last year’s sweep — a class that brought unprecedented diversity to the bench. And they questioned whether centralizing that power in Abbott’s office might effectively give the Republicans control over the judiciary for longer than the party can hold the other two branches of government.

In April, a House committee hosted a spirited debate on the bill, then left the pitch pending. Landgraf said he wouldn’t push to advance it without bipartisan support; Democrats cheered its defeat.

First of all, no way is it acceptable to put this power in the hands of the Governor. Putting aside who the governor is now, how does that take the politics out of the process? All it does is incentivize anyone who wants to be a judge to suck up to the Governor. Sure, you could redesign things so that no one person or one party has control over the process, but any way you slice it you are granting this power to a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of people. But if this does get traction, then no way do “small rural counties” get exempted from it. If this is a good system for Harris and Dallas, it’s a good system for Loving and Deaf Smith.

But the bottom line remains that this is only ever an issue when Democrats have a good year at the ballot box. The first time Republicans started talking about changing the partisan election system was in 2008. It then got mostly dropped (except for its most ardent supporters, and I will admit that the likes of Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht continued to bang this drum at every opportunity) in the 2010 to 2014 period, only to be revived in 2016. First they ended straight ticket voting (though not in time for 2018, poor things), and now this. The goal is to install Republican judges, hopefully before Democrats can elect a majority to either of the statewide courts. Come back with a proposal that isn’t primarily about that, and then maybe we can talk. Until then, there’s no reason for any Democratic legislator to support this.

How many contested judicial primaries should we expect?

We already know that we’re going to get primary challenges to at least one Democratic countywide officeholder, as County Attorney Vince Ryan has two challengers lining up against him, and DA Kim Ogg has at least one person who has announced interest in challenging her. Most of the county offices available are judicial, though, and now that the local judiciary (other than a few JPs) is entirely Democratic, the path to gaining a bench for yourself is limited if one doesn’t want to take on a Democratic incumbent. I had a conversation about this with some folks recently, and we were debating how many such challenges we may see this year. I thought the number would be relatively small, and I based that on the belief that there weren’t that many primary challenges to Republican judges in recent years. That was my intuition, but I didn’t know the actual numbers at the time. I’ve now had a chance to look through recent primary history, and this is what I found:


Republican judicial primary challenges

2002 - 5
2004 - 0
2006 - 4
2008 - 1
2010 - 1
2014 - 3
2018 - 1

That’s less than I had thought. A couple of notes here. I only looked at the years in which all the incumbents were Republican (so no 2012 or 2016), and I limited myself to district and county courts (so no statewide, appeals courts, or JPs). There were some contested races in years where a jurist had been appointed to complete the term of someone who had stepped down or gotten a promotion – in 2008, there were two such races, in in 2012 there were four, for example – but I put those in a separate category. Basically, from what I found, there were actually very few challenges to sitting judges who had served full term. Make of that what you will.

Now, a couple of caveats here. One possible reason for the lack of challenges to four-year incumbents may be because there often were benches vacated in the middle of someone’s tenure, which allowed for a challenge of someone who had been appointed. These judges presumably felt comfortable stepping down mid-term because they knew their replacement would also be a Republican, with district court judges being appointed by the Governor and county court judges being appointed by Commissioners Court. With the exception of Al Bennett, who was named to a federal bench, no Democratic district court judge has stepped down since the first set were elected in 2008. Some have declined to run for re-election, but no others have given Rick Perry or Greg Abbott the opportunity to pick their interim replacement. County court judges won’t have that concern now, but for the foreseeable future I don’t expect any district court judges to abandon their post before it expires if they can at all help it. That points towards more primary challenges than what we had seen in the past.

In addition, while there was no upward trend in primary challenges over time, I think we’re in a different era now, and I think people will be less squeamish about taking that plunge. Honestly, if there ever was a year to try it, it would be this year, because the extreme turnout expected due to the Presidential race ought to make most of these races pure tossups, and by “tossup” I mean the most important factor will be your ballot position, which is determined by random draw. We’re all going to need to be on guard for low-grade opportunists who hope to luck into a bench. I hope I’m overstating this concern.

Anyway. Unlike for executive offices, I don’t expect judicial challengers to announce themselves this early, but it will be filing season before you know it. What do you think will happen?

McLeod wants back on the bench

That’s fine. He’s got ten months to make his case to Democratic primary voters.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County Civil Court At Law judge who inadvertently resigned his post in March, and unsuccessfully lobbied Commissioners Court to allow him to remain on the bench, said he plans to run for his former seat in 2020.

Judge Bill McLeod also blasted the three Democratic members who decided to replace him, whom he says had already made their decision before McLeod pleaded for a reprieve at the April 9 Commissioners Court meeting.

“The manner in which commissioners handled it was really a disservice to Harris County voters,” McLeod said Sunday. “I want to take my bench back.”

[…]

McLeod’s resignation spurred a special election in March 2020 to fill the remainder of his term, which runs through 2022. McLeod told Commissioners Court he abandoned his plans to run for the state Supreme Court, and instead wishes to regain his old seat.

Briones said she will campaign next year to remain in the post. Her first day on the bench is Monday.

McLeod said he will make a formal announcement May 15, and plans to return to private practice as a civil litigator until the election.

See here and here for the background. I said my piece in those two posts and don’t have anything to add to that. I have no preference at this time for who should sit on that particular bench. Briones and McLeod will make their cases for themselves, but with all due respect there are other races higher on my mind right now.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

More on McLeod

Here’s the Chron story on the bizarre accidental judicial resignation.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County attorney’s office was notified in March that Judge Bill McLeod, a Democrat presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4, had filed a transfer of campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission stating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Unbeknownst to McLeod, this filing triggered Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial post an automatic resignation.

“This is insane,” McLeod said Wednesday. “All of the judges are going, ‘You did what? How? We didn’t even know (the constitutional provision) existed.’”

McLeod, who was elected in November, hopes that a different provision of the constitution will help rectify his mistake. Article 16, Section 17 states that a county Commissioners Court is not required to appoint a successor after a county officer resigns, and “may allow the officeholder who resigned…to remain in office” as a holdover. If this happens, McLeod would have to run again in 2020 even though he was elected to a four-year term.

[…]

McLeod is not the first judicial officer to fall victim to this provision. In 2013, Irene Rios, then a Bexar County (San Antonio) court-at-law judge, told county commissioners she intended to run for chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, triggering her automatic resignation. Rios remained in her seat for four weeks after her announcement before tendering her letter of resignation, and she continued to make legal rulings during that time.

A 1999 amendment to the Texas Supreme Court judicial code of conduct further affirms that judges can continue to hold judicial office while being a candidate for another judicial office.

[…]

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic commissioner, was noncommittal on McLeod’s future, stating: “I firmly believe that any action taken by Commissioners Court on this matter must uphold the Texas Constitution above all else and that principle is what will ultimately guide my decision on Tuesday.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and a spokeswoman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the two other Democrats on the court, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republican Commissioner Steve Radack said he would not be receptive to appointing a holdover for a judicial post.

“If he’s resigned then how can you justify having him as a holdover?” Radack said. “That’s certainly not the spirit of the law.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, the judicial code of conduct doesn’t override the Constitution, it just allows judges that aren’t subject to that Constitutional provision to run for other office while remaining on the bench. If you look at Chapter 16, Section 65, all the offices in question are county offices except for District Attorney. It’s a quirk of the code that’s surely a holdover from an earlier time (note the inclusion of public weighers), and when you think about it there’s no real logic to limiting that restriction to just those offices. But that’s the Constitution we have, so here we are.

As to what happens, who knows? Either three Commissioners agree with the argument that it doesn’t make sense to kick McLeod off the bench, thus allowing him to hold over till the 2020 election, or they don’t. Note that if McLeod has his sights on the Supreme Court, he would have to step down after 2020 anyway, as he wouldn’t be able to run to fill the remainder of his term. It’s a coin toss either way, and I don’t envy any member of Commissioners Court the decision.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covers the story, reprinted by the Trib.

UPDATE: Here’s a detailed legal argument in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, sent to me by Adam Milasincic. It’s pretty persuasive.

Please delete April Fools Day from your calendar

I just can’t.

Judge William McLeod

An April Fools’ Day resignation prank? One Texas civil court judge wishes it were so.

A newly elected judge in Houston accidentally resigned on Monday, according to local media and a county official, after he shared plans online to run for the state supreme court, apparently unaware that the Texas constitution considers such an announcement an automatic resignation.

The Harris County Civil Court judge, Bill McLeod, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Local TV station KHOU 11 News on Monday reported that McLeod declined to comment on the move.

Article 16, Section 65, of the state’s constitution says that a judge’s announcement of candidacy for another office “shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held.”

The county attorney’s office will present the matter to county commissioners next Tuesday, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in a phone interview on Tuesday. County commissioners, who can appoint replacements, may decide to keep McLeod in office until there is a special election, KHOU 11 reported.

The judge’s supporters have organized on social media using the hashtag #IStandWithMcLeod. They plan to attend the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting and express their wish that the judge retain his office despite his blunder.

Here’s Judge McLeod’s Facebook page, where I assume this accidental resignation happened. I tried looking for that post, but there were too many posts in support of him to scroll past, so I gave up. Judge McLeod was one of the more energetic campaigners, both in real life and on social media, in 2018 and I’m not at all surprised that people are rallying to his defense. Commissioners Court has the discretion of allowing him to stay in place until the next election, essentially serving as his own appointed interim successor. If he’s lucky, he’ll just have to run again in 2020 – he should have no trouble winning if that happens – and then can run for re-election as usual in 2022. This KHOU story doesn’t mention the April Fool angle, so I’m not really sure if this was a joke that didn’t land or just a foolishly early announcement with unexpected consequences. Either way, it wasn’t the best idea anyone ever had.

(Just so we’re all clear, the Constitutional provision cited in the story applies to the following offices: District Clerks; County Clerks; County Judges; Judges of the County Courts at Law, County Criminal Courts, County Probate Courts and County Domestic Relations Courts; County Treasurers; Criminal District Attorneys; County Surveyors; County Commissioners; Justices of the Peace; Sheriffs; Assessors and Collectors of Taxes; District Attorneys; County Attorneys; Public Weighers; and Constables. That means that among other things, it does not apply to District Court judges or appeals court judges, which is why the Democratic candidates for Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018, all of whom were sitting District Court judges in Harris County, did not have to resign. Remember how long there was speculation about Adrian Garcia running for Mayor in 2015 before he ever said anything? That was because he had to resign as soon as he did say it. Let’s all be aware of these things going forward, OK? Thanks.)

UPDATE: Here’s a legal defense of Judge McLeod’s actions. It’s more complicated than it first appears.

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

This is great, but as always that’s not the end of it.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013, when pastor Jack Pidgeon and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city to end the policy. In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling that opened up marriage rights to same-sex couples in all states, Pidgeon and Hicks continued to pursue the lawsuit, arguing that the decision did not extend to the right to city spousal benefits.

In June 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that while same-sex marriage had been made legal, there is still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the landmark Obergefell ruling. The all-Republican high court sent the case back to a Houston trial court for further consideration.

Nearly two years later, Judge Sonya Heath on Monday threw out the case, ruling for Houston in what the city has touted as a major win.

“This is a victory for equality, the law of our nation and human rights,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Thursday evening. “I thank our Legal Department for its diligent work defending common sense and fairness, and I’m glad we get to continue the policy established by the city 6 years ago.”

Still, that win won’t go unchallenged. Jared Woodfill, the lawyer who represents Pidgeon and Hicks, said Thursday night that his clients will appeal the ruling — and that he expects the case to land again before the Texas Supreme Court and that it could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a bunch of blathering by Jared Woodfill in the story about how unfair it was that a Democratic judge, who ousted the Republican judge that originally gave him an injunction that was quickly overridden, got to rule on his case, while also gloating that Republican judges up the line and on SCOTUS will surely be in the bag for him. He failed to mention that the only reason this case is still being litigated is because the State Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after initially giving him the brushoff. I don’t know what will happen in this case once the appeals process starts up again, but I do know two things. One is that Woodfill and his crank case plaintiffs represent a shrinking fringe, and two is that we need to win more elections so we can pass some more robust laws protecting the fundamental rights of all Americans. (Honestly, just ensuring that no more bad legislation gets passed would be a big step forward.) Mayor Turner’s press release has more.

RIP, Cassandra Hollemon

Sad news.

Cassandra Hollemon

Cassandra Hollemon took the bench in a sweep of Black Girl Magic, becoming part of the historic moment when 19 African-American women in Harris County won spots overseeing some of the busiest courtrooms in Texas.

In the weeks since taking over Harris County Criminal Court of Law 12, Hollemon helped make a mark on local justice reform when she joined her colleagues in efforts to settle the landmark lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system. She served on the Community Supervision and Pretrial Services Committee, and offered a keen sense of humor with friends and colleagues.

On Monday, she died after weeks of struggling with “health issues,” according to fellow misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan. She was 57.

“We are saddened by the passing of Judge Cassandra Y. Hollemon,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “She was a compassionate judge who treated one in a respectful manner.”

Now, the Harris County Commissioners Court will have to pick a replacement, according to Barbara Armstrong, a managing lawyer at County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office. Given the timing of Hollemon’s death, her replacement would take the bench through 2020, with the option to run then in an election to complete Holleman’s unexpired term ending in 2022.

I did not have the opportunity to meet Judge Hollemon during the campaign last year, so I can’t add to her eulogy. She was clearly well-liked and well-respected, and she leaves behind two children and a grandchild, to whom I send out my deepest sympathies. As she was elected to a County bench, her successor will be named by Commissioners Court; had she been a District Court judge, it would have been Greg Abbott appointing a new judge. Rest in peace, Judge Cassandra Hollemon.

Time again to talk judicial elections

Here we go again, like it or not.

In the wake of a midterm election that swept some 20 Republican appellate judges out of office, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called on the Texas Legislature to reform a system he called “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

“When partisan politics is the driving force and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” Hecht told both chambers of the Legislature on Wednesday morning in his biennial address, a wide-ranging speech that touched on judicial salaries, technology and bail reform. “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

In recent history, partisan judicial elections have played well for Texas’ majority party; the state’s two high courts, in which justices run statewide, comprise all Republicans, as they have for two decades. But last year, as turnout surged in urban areas and voters leaned heavily toward the straight-ticket voting option, Democratic judges were swept onto the bench on the coattails of candidates like Beto O’Rourke. All told, Hecht said, in the last election, Texas’ district and appellate courts “lost seven centuries of judicial experience at a single stroke.”

“Qualifications did not drive their election,” Hecht said. “Partisan politics did.”

It wasn’t a new criticism, nor was it the first time Hecht has made such a call. Justices on Texas’ two high courts have been among the most vocal critics of a system that requires justices to run as partisan figures but rule as impartial arbiters, and the state has been challenged in court over the practice. But the call took on new significance after a shattering judicial election for Texas Republicans, who lost control of four major state appeals courts based in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Judges and lawyers who practice before those courts have fretted not just about the startling shift in judicial philosophy, but also the abrupt loss of judicial experience.

Hecht called on lawmakers to consider shifting to a system of merit selection and retention elections — or to at least pass legislative proposals that would increase the qualification requirements for judicial candidates.

You know how I feel about this, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t doubt that Justice Hecht is sincere But:

1. Republicans have had complete control of Texas government since 2003. That’s eight regular sessions, and however many special sessions, in which they could have addressed this but chose not to.

2. Hecht and former Justice Wallace Jefferson have spoken about this before, but if anyone was talking about it before 2008, when Democrats first started winning judicial races in Harris County, I’m not aware of it.

3. The judges who were voted out may well have been experienced, but that doesn’t mean they’d make better judges than the candidates who replaced them. And the main consideration people had was voting for change. Maybe as part of the party in power, Hecht should given that a little more consideration.

Anyway. Until someone proposes an actual system to replace the one we have, one that takes into account the inherent politics of the process and deals with it in a way that truly enables merit and produces a judiciary that reflects the population it judges, it’s all just noise to me.

(Justice Hecht also had some loud and laudable words in favor of bail reform, which I appreciate. Go read the rest of the story for that.)

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Here come the new judges

They’re going to be fine. Seriously, everyone chill out.

[Frank] Aguilar said some of his Democratic colleagues may not have a lot of judicial experience, but most have had long careers as lawyers and have the experience they need to improve the system.

That sentiment has been a constant among the new Democrat judges. In the days after the election, Dedra Davis, who was elected to civil bench, said the new judges would be using a “wheel” to appoint attorneys at random instead of continuing a system of judges appointing a small roster of attorneys they know.

“A little more fairness, a little more impartiality, and a little more equality is coming, and not everybody’s happy about that,” she said. “Lawyers who made $500,000 a year from their relationship with a judge who always gave them appointments aren’t going to see that anymore.”

In the days after the election, attorneys who had been elevated to the bench were busy winding up their practices while judges who lost were looking at their options.

Josh Hill, a newly elected Democrat criminal court judge, said there is a learning curve in any new job. He expects some “hiccups and speedbumps” around the courts, but said he and the other new judges are fair and will work hard to improve the system.

“I don’t have any reason to think that any of the incoming judges will be incapable of handling the task. I think they’ll do fine,” he said. “Ultimately, you’re going to see a more progressive criminal justice system.”

Hill noted that some of the departing judges came to work late and did not seem to be diligent about getting things done with their dockets. He said practical experience and a strong work ethic are more important than the belief that judges are somehow “better” qualified just because they’ve been on the bench longer.

“Some of them did a great job and some did a terrible job and some were just in-between,” he said. “It just comes down to the individual and what they’re willing to put into it and how hard they’re willing to work.”

[…]

JoAnne Musick , felony division chief at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said new judges are elected every other year and they all seem to learn the job.

“It takes them four to six weeks to get their feet wet and then they’re off and running,” she said.

Many criminal defense attorneys agreed.

“I’ve seen so many transitions and everybody figures it out. It’s going to be fine,” said Cheryl Irvin, a longtime criminal defense lawyer who has practiced since 1980. “Nobody’s going home who should be going to prison. Nothing like that is happening and anybody who says anything like that is just immature.”

Yeah, pretty much. I know it’s de rigeur to dump on the system we have of partisan judicial elections, and for sure there are some departing judges who would have been fine to keep on the bench. But let’s be honest, appointment systems will pick some duds, too. Every company that has ever hired an employee has hired people who just didn’t work out for one reason or another. Maybe an appointment system, if properly built and maintained, would do a better job of picking winners than the system we have now. But all those good judges whose loss everyone is now lamenting were chosen by this same partisan election system we have. It’s not like nobody good got elected.

And hey, guess what: The Legislature is about to be in session. Everyone who believes the system we have for electing judges is terrible is welcomed and encouraged to lobby their legislators to design and implement something better. Come up with a plan, get a legislator to sponsor it, and go from there. There’s never been a better time to turn complaints into action. And if six months from now we make it to sine die without such a bill appearing on anyone’s radar, I’ll know how serious the complainers were about their grievances.

Another straight-ticket truther

Hello, outgoing Fort Bend DA John Healey!

John Healey

When John Healey began his career as a young prosecutor in Fort Bend County in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president, MTV had just gone on the air and the then-rural county had fewer than 175,000 residents.

As Healey prepares to leave the office where he’s spent his entire career, including 26 years as the county’s top prosecutor, the sprawling suburb has roughly 764,000 residents with a growing number of diverse communities.

A Republican, Healey announced his retirement more than a year before the blue wave that swept many Democrats into county offices, including his own. Democrat Brian Middleton, a Houston defense attorney who once worked for Healey, will succeed him at the start of 2019.

[…]

The county is also tilting more toward the Democrats, from Hillary Clinton winning the county in 2016 to ousting longtime County Judge Bob Hebert, a Republican, this past fall. Hebert will be succeeded by Democrat KP George.

“I think you have a well-organized Democratic Party that mobilized a lot of people on fear across the board in the ballot of Donald Trump,” said Healey. “Those that voted straight-ticket voted good Republicans out of office, didn’t care that they were doing it, and maybe didn’t even know that they were doing it.”

I do so love the implication that people who voted straight ticket were too stupid to know who and what they were voting for. There’s nothing more appealing in a public official than insulting voters. The possibility that people may have been deliberately and consciously voting for a change of direction, to rebuke a corrupt and incompetent president, for the candidates who better reflected their values and experiences, or some combination of all three, just doesn’t occur to him. Which strongly suggests to me that he picked the right time to get off the stage.

And just for the record:


Straight R    81,228
Straight D    89,491
Margin         8,263

240th District Court

Bridges      117,587
Fraley       132,199
Margin        14,612

268th District Court

Hawkins      116,476
Williams     133,419
Margin        16,943

458th District Court

Cannata      117,370
Rolnick      132,206
Margin        14,836

District Attorney

Vacek        115,370
Middleton    134,915
Margin        19,545

County Judge

Hebert       118,001
George       132,783
Margin        14,782

District Clerk

Elliott      117,534
Walker       132,630
Margin        15,096

I skipped a few county court races, all of which were in the same range. Point being, even if you accept the ridiculous and ridicule-worthy claim that straight ticket votes are somehow less than other votes, every countywide Democrat in Fort Bend still won their race. Nowhere was that margin greater than in the race for DA, to succeed John Healey. You can believe what you want to believe, John. The voters knew what they wanted.

From the “It’s never too early to make candidate announcements” department

From the inbox:

Three sitting District Judges from Dallas County plan to run for the Fifth District Court of Appeals in 2020. Judge Bonnie Goldstein of the 44th Civil District Court will campaign for Place 3. Judge Craig Smith of the 192nd Civil District Court will seek Place 6. Judge Dennise Garcia of the 303rd Family District Court will run for Place 8. The Fifth District Court of Appeals handles all types of appeals – family, civil and criminal – from a six-county district comprised of Dallas, Collin, Grayson, Hunt, Rockwall and Kaufman counties.

Judge Goldstein was first elected to the 44th Civil District Court in 2014. She has 28 years of combined legal and judicial experience. A graduate of the National Law Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Judge Goldstein’s background is in construction litigation, education law, state and local government, government contracts and procurement law. She has also served as a judge for the cities of Dallas and Cockrell Hill. Judge Goldstein is bi-lingual and once served as the Legal Counselor to the Mexican Consulate in Houston. She ran for the Fifth District Court of Appeals in 2010.

Judge Smith was first elected to the 192nd Civil District Court in 2006. He has been honored as the Trial Judge of the Year by the Dallas Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, and also received the Hartman Judicial Pro Bono Service Award from the Dallas Bar Association. He served as President of the Texas Association of District Judges from 2010 to 2013. Board Certified in both Civil Trial Law and Personal Injury Trial Law, Judge Smith has more than 40 years of combined legal and judicial experience.

Judge Garcia nearly won her campaign for Fifth District Court of Appeals in 2016. This is her second attempt. Judge Garcia would bring a wealth of family law knowledge and experience to the court. She was first elected to the 303rd Family District Court in 2004. She has served as Presiding Judge of the Dallas County Family District Courts, and she is Board Certified in Family Law. Judge Garcia’s honors include being named Jurist of the Year by the Texas Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a Dallas Observer Best of Dallas Award, and a Profiles in Leadership Award from the SMU Women’s Symposium. She has 24 years of combined legal and judicial experience.

In the recent 2018 midterm election, Democratic candidates won all eight contested seats on the Fifth District Court of Appeals. Texas law allows state district judges to seek higher judicial office without resigning. Judges Goldstein, Smith and Garcia will continue service on their current benches.

It won’t surprise me if we see a few more announcements like this. Nothing will stop anyone else from jumping in, but there’s no harm in staking a claim. I’ll say this, if Dems dominate the appeals court races in 2020 as they did in 2018, I’d expect to see a push to redraw the appellate court map in 2021. We might even see it this session, but that might be seen as an admission of weakness, which I don’t think the Republicans are ready or willing to make at this time. But one more cycle of incumbent judges getting booted, and I suspect all options will be on the table.

Precinct analysis: One final look at judicial races and undervoting

This one is short and sweet, and really could have been the entry level way of looking at the question “who is more likely to lose voters down the ballot when straight ticket voting is gone, Dems or Republicans?” We agree that there are a ton of judicial elections on the Harris County ballot. It’s more in the off years than the Presidential years, and this year there were 67 such races, including the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals, but not including the statewide positions and the JP races. These are the races where we’d expect those fabled “fatigued” voters to give up and skip to the “cast ballot” button, thus leaving some candidates out in the cold. What actually happened this year, with this ridiculously long ballot?

Well, the way I look at it here is to look at the vote totals for each party’s candidates as we get further and further down the ballot. To smooth out the variances a bit, I grouped the judicial races into fives, and averaged the vote totals for each party. Here’s how that looked for 2018:


 R avg    D avg
===============
525,105  659,269
532,722  649,946
534,714  647,210
531,416  649,545
529,551  651,147
526,579  653,219
522,370  657,782
522,130  657,317
521,753  656,926
527,228  650,895
524,574  653,409
520,817  656,424

The last group has seven races in it, as there were 67 in total. The first five appellate races are for whatever the reason different than everything that comes after them, but as you can see the total range of votes is fairly limited. Once again, we see that – again, with an odd blip three from the end – Dems do a better job of hanging onto their voters than the Republicans do. Here’s how this looks as a chart:

Again, I think the data is a bit mixed, and we don’t really know how the people who have been voting straight tickets will behave once that’s not an option. My point continues to be that it’s ridiculous and unsupported by the data to make assertions about what will happen once this change is implemented. Among other things, voters (and parties and candidates) have two years to absorb the idea of the change and to make adjustments for it. Here in Harris County, as in some other bigger counties, we can now take steps to ensure that the longer time it takes to complete a ballot will not lead to longer lines and voter frustration, so that may help mitigate the more unsavory parts of this change. It may well be when all is said and done and we have some more elections under our belt that Dems do see more dropoff in their races. I don’t think that will happen, or if it does that it will be a significant effect, but it could. Whatever does happen, let’s remember what was said before anyone could know for sure.

Precinct analysis: Undervoting in judicial races

Last time, we looked at undervoting by State Rep district in the two city propositions, which were at the very end of the 2018 ballot. That showed a somewhat greater likelihood of people in Democratic districts to skip those races, which was the first real evidence to support the assertion that Dems might suffer more in the post-straight ticket world. I said this was suggestive but far from conclusive, since we were looking at non-partisan referenda, with no candidates involved.

So with that in mind, let’s look at undervoting in a few of the judicial races that were on the ballot this year. These are also low profile and deep into the ballot, but they do provide the cue of party identification. What if any patterns do we see in the tendency to not vote in these races? To try to answer this, I looked at six judicial races, three of the first ones that appear and which have an overall low undervote rate, and three that appear near the end and which have an overall high undervote rate.


55th Civil Court

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,233  24,644  1,355   55.09%  44.91%  10.85%
HD127   42,637  24,900  1,574   63.13%  36.87%  10.12%
HD128   35,499  16,006  1,166   68.92%  31.08%  10.70%
HD129   37,342  26,324  2,023   58.65%  41.35%  12.24%
HD130   52,602  22,821  1,669   69.74%  30.26%  10.04%
HD131    6,328  35,416    803   15.16%  84.84%   9.40%
HD132   33,591  32,514  1,267   50.81%  49.19%   9.54%
HD133   43,482  26,449  2,625   62.18%  37.82%  12.38%
HD134   43,229  43,298  4,447   49.96%  50.04%  13.50%
HD135   27,503  27,919  1,288   49.62%  50.38%  10.82%
HD137    7,664  16,339    651   31.93%  68.07%  12.07%
HD138   24,343  23,390  1,477   51.00%  49.00%  12.93%
HD139   11,101  35,586  1,187   23.78%  76.22%  11.00%
HD140    5,470  17,978    604   23.33%  76.67%  14.49%
HD141    4,035  27,344    456   12.86%  87.14%   8.83%
HD142    8,754  30,706    762   22.18%  77.82%   9.07%
HD143    7,706  20,648    883   27.18%  72.82%  14.69%
HD144    9,282  13,946    589   39.96%  60.04%  13.11%
HD145   10,224  22,188  1,053   31.54%  68.46%  13.19%
HD146    8,664  34,224  1,237   20.20%  79.80%  11.43%
HD147   10,994  43,284  1,603   20.25%  79.75%  11.21%
HD148   17,180  29,480  2,205   36.82%  63.18%  14.28%
HD149   14,500  24,179    994   37.49%  62.51%  13.36%
HD150   42,340  27,688  1,648   60.46%  39.54%  10.41%

113th Civil Court

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,196  24,706  1,330   55.00%  45.00%  10.65%
HD127   42,466  25,062  1,582   62.89%  37.11%  10.17%
HD128   35,412  16,121  1,137   68.72%  31.28%  10.43%
HD129   37,111  26,583  1,994   58.26%  41.74%  12.07%
HD130   52,495  22,970  1,628   69.56%  30.44%   9.79%
HD131    6,340  35,364    843   15.20%  84.80%   9.87%
HD132   33,499  32,612  1,263   50.67%  49.33%   9.51%
HD133   43,377  26,602  2,576   61.99%  38.01%  12.15%
HD134   42,809  43,765  4,399   49.45%  50.55%  13.36%
HD135   27,447  27,985  1,278   49.51%  50.49%  10.74%
HD137    7,652  16,353    649   31.88%  68.12%  12.03%
HD138   24,316  23,460  1,434   50.90%  49.10%  12.55%
HD139   11,015  35,683  1,175   23.59%  76.41%  10.89%
HD140    5,397  18,035    619   23.03%  76.97%  14.85%
HD141    4,031  27,310    494   12.86%  87.14%   9.56%
HD142    8,737  30,727    758   22.14%  77.86%   9.02%
HD143    7,650  20,712    875   26.97%  73.03%  14.55%
HD144    9,214  14,003    600   39.69%  60.31%  13.35%
HD145   10,086  22,309  1,071   31.13%  68.87%  13.42%
HD146    8,650  34,212  1,264   20.18%  79.82%  11.68%
HD147   10,915  43,365  1,600   20.11%  79.89%  11.19%
HD148   17,005  29,665  2,194   36.44%  63.56%  14.21%
HD149   14,447  24,233    993   37.35%  62.65%  13.35%
HD150   42,295  27,745  1,635   60.39%  39.61%  10.33%

157th Civil Court

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,042  24,846  1,343   54.73%  45.27%  10.76%
HD127   42,272  25,265  1,573   62.59%  37.41%  10.12%
HD128   35,281  16,231  1,159   68.49%  31.51%  10.63%
HD129   36,933  26,762  1,993   57.98%  42.02%  12.06%
HD130   52,322  23,142  1,628   69.33%  30.67%   9.79%
HD131    6,238  35,494    815   14.95%  85.05%   9.54%
HD132   33,353  32,753  1,266   50.45%  49.55%   9.54%
HD133   43,043  26,911  2,601   61.53%  38.47%  12.27%
HD134   42,716  43,888  4,370   49.32%  50.68%  13.27%
HD135   27,295  28,129  1,286   49.25%  50.75%  10.81%
HD137    7,550  16,442    662   31.47%  68.53%  12.27%
HD138   24,070  23,719  1,420   50.37%  49.63%  12.43%
HD139   10,938  35,770  1,166   23.42%  76.58%  10.81%
HD140    5,375  18,069    607   22.93%  77.07%  14.57%
HD141    3,982  27,377    475   12.70%  87.30%   9.19%
HD142    8,699  30,765    756   22.04%  77.96%   9.00%
HD143    7,588  20,773    876   26.76%  73.24%  14.57%
HD144    9,133  14,084    600   39.34%  60.66%  13.35%
HD145    9,994  22,398  1,074   30.85%  69.15%  13.45%
HD146    8,552  34,330  1,244   19.94%  80.06%  11.49%
HD147   10,860  43,432  1,589   20.00%  80.00%  11.12%
HD148   16,924  29,752  2,189   36.26%  63.74%  14.17%
HD149   14,398  24,291    984   37.21%  62.79%  13.23%
HD150   42,017  28,012  1,646   60.00%  40.00%  10.40%  

Crim Ct 9

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   29,830  24,865  1,537   54.54%  45.46%  12.31%
HD127   42,199  25,096  1,815   62.71%  37.29%  11.67%
HD128   35,154  16,210  1,306   68.44%  31.56%  11.98%
HD129   36,365  27,045  2,278   57.35%  42.65%  13.78%
HD130   52,079  23,117  1,896   69.26%  30.74%  11.41%
HD131    6,169  35,441    936   14.83%  85.17%  10.96%
HD132   33,179  32,735  1,459   50.34%  49.66%  10.99%
HD133   41,803  27,603  3,148   60.23%  39.77%  14.85%
HD134   39,653  46,022  5,296   46.28%  53.72%  16.08%
HD135   27,110  28,157  1,443   49.05%  50.95%  12.13%
HD137    7,498  16,405    750   31.37%  68.63%  13.90%
HD138   23,827  23,757  1,626   50.07%  49.93%  14.23%
HD139   10,811  35,768  1,293   23.21%  76.79%  11.99%
HD140    5,379  18,029    644   22.98%  77.02%  15.45%
HD141    4,005  27,279    551   12.80%  87.20%  10.66%
HD142    8,698  30,678	  843   22.09%  77.91%  10.03%
HD143    7,576  20,721    940   26.77%  73.23%  15.64%
HD144    9,172  14,023    621   39.54%  60.46%  13.82%
HD145    9,829  22,420  1,215   30.48%  69.52%  15.22%
HD146    8,249  34,479  1,398   19.31%  80.69%  12.92%
HD147   10,283  43,791  1,806   19.02%  80.98%  12.63%
HD148   16,219  30,145  2,500   34.98%  65.02%  16.19%
HD149   14,267  24,365  1,041   36.93%  63.07%  14.00%
HD150   41,803  28,015  1,856   59.87%  40.13%  11.73% 

Crim Ct 10

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   29,452  25,205  1,574   53.89%  46.11%  12.61%
HD127   41,583  25,678  1,850   61.82%  38.18%  11.90%
HD128   34,899  16,440  1,331   67.98%  32.02%  12.21%
HD129   35,939  27,475  2,275   56.67%  43.33%  13.77%
HD130   51,686  23,502  1,905   68.74%  31.26%  11.46%
HD131    5,983  35,592    971   14.39%  85.61%  11.37%
HD132   32,929  32,966  1,478   49.97%  50.03%  11.13%
HD133   41,082  28,334  3,138   59.18%  40.82%  14.80%
HD134   38,613  47,031  5,328   45.09%  54.91%  16.18%
HD135   26,847  28,401  1,461   48.59%  51.41%  12.28%
HD137    7,324  16,567    762   30.66%  69.34%  14.13%
HD138   23,483  24,083  1,644   49.37%  50.63%  14.39%
HD139   10,567  35,974  1,330   22.70%  77.30%  12.33%
HD140    5,243  18,158    648   22.41%  77.59%  15.55%
HD141    3,929  27,329    576   12.57%  87.43%  11.15%
HD142    8,543  30,818    858   21.70%  78.30%  10.21%
HD143    7,390  20,879    967   26.14%  73.86%  16.08%
HD144    8,991  14,211    615   38.75%  61.25%  13.69%
HD145    9,670  22,571  1,224   29.99%  70.01%  15.33%
HD146    8,056  34,654  1,415   18.86%  81.14%  13.07%
HD147   10,087  43,932  1,861   18.67%  81.33%  13.02%
HD148   15,808  30,508  2,547   34.13%  65.87%  16.49%
HD149   14,075  24,529  1,068   36.46%  63.54%  14.36%
HD150   41,459  28,345  1,871   59.39%  40.61%  11.82%


Probate Court 4

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,387  24,311  1,532   55.55%  44.45%  12.27%
HD127   42,669  24,596  1,844   63.43%  36.57%  11.86%
HD128   35,440  15,919  1,311   69.00%  31.00%  12.03%
HD129   37,372  26,067  2,250   58.91%  41.09%  13.61%
HD130   52,671  22,515  1,906   70.05%  29.95%  11.47%
HD131    6,425  35,169    953   15.45%  84.55%  11.16%
HD132   33,759  32,171  1,444   51.20%  48.80%  10.88%
HD133   43,453  26,046  3,056   62.52%  37.48%  14.41%
HD134   42,830  43,007  5,134   49.90%  50.10%  15.59%
HD135   27,621  27,648  1,440   49.98%  50.02%  12.10%
HD137    7,696  16,214    744   32.19%  67.81%  13.79%
HD138   24,436  23,142  1,631   51.36%  48.64%  14.27%
HD139   11,236  35,313  1,324   24.14%  75.86%  12.27%
HD140    5,474  17,937    640   23.38%  76.62%  15.36%
HD141    4,126  27,136    571   13.20%  86.80%  11.05%
HD142    8,912  30,439    867   22.65%  77.35%  10.32%
HD143    7,680  20,605    952   27.15%  72.85%  15.83%
HD144    9,248  13,948    621   39.87%  60.13%  13.82%
HD145   10,235  21,997  1,231   31.75%  68.25%  15.42%
HD146    8,760  33,962  1,404   20.50%  79.50%  12.97%
HD147   11,217  42,809  1,851   20.76%  79.24%  12.95%
HD148   17,153  29,185  2,525   37.02%  62.98%  16.35%
HD149   14,556  24,074  1,042   37.68%  62.32%  14.01%
HD150   42,460  27,401  1,815   60.78%  39.22%  11.47%

As before the undervote rate is calculated by subtracting out the straight ticket votes from the total turnout in each district, so the percentage is (undervotes) / (non-straight ticket votes). There are three things to note here.

1. Three strong Democratic districts, HDs 131, 141, and 142, are consistently among those with the lowest undervote rates. Two strong Republican districts, HDs 129 and 133, are consistently among those with the highest undervote rates. There are also Democratic districts (HDs 140, 143, 145, 148) with high undervote rates, and Republican districts (HDs 126, 127, 128, 130, 150) with low undervote rates. The message is mixed.

2. If we zoom in on the most even districts – HDs 132, 134, 135, and 138 – we see that as we move from the races with overall low undervote rates to the races with the overall high undervote rates, the Democratic percentages in these districts increased in two of the three races. This is also the case for Democratic majority districts – look at HDs 144, 145, 146, and 147, for example. In other words, the voters that are dropping off are for the most part not those that are voting for Democratic judicial candidates.

3. Pulling back out to the bigger picture, the total number of votes affected here is really small. Look at HD148, one of the highest-undervote districts. The total number of undervotes there ranges from 2,189 to 2,545, a difference of 356 votes. As I said weeks ago, the range of undervotes in these judicial races is something like 31K to 36K, so maybe about five thousand more people drop off at the bottom of the ballot than in the middle, where we start voting for judicial candidates. That’s not a lot of votes! The Democratic judicial candidates in 2018 all won by at least 100K votes. The closest judicial race in 2016 was decided by 23K votes. You’d need to have a really big dropoff rate and a really big partisan differential for there to be a chance this could have an effect. There is zero evidence for either of these.

Now look, I admit that I am not a Professional Political Scientist. If I were, I’d probably being doing linear regressions or other fancy mathematical analyses to try to rigorously tease out possible correlations. I’m just a lowlife blogger fooling around in Excel while I watch the Texans game. But again, that’s my whole point about these ridiculous claims about “voter fatigue” and “Republican voters are more committed”, which is SHOW ME THE FRICKING EVIDENCE FOR THESE CLAIMS. I’m doing my amateur-level best to try and find it, and I can’t. If anything, I’m finding evidence for the opposite. Prove me wrong! I double dog dare you!

Anyway. I still have one last post on this topic, then I will go back to looking at precinct data in the way you’re more used to me looking at it. I hope you have found this useful.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

Non-partisan judicial elections are not the answer

With respect, I disagree.

Most of us are proud we voted, yet most of us abdicated our voting power when it came to electing judges. Our trial and appellate judges oversee our Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendment rights daily, but most Harris County voters simply hit a straight-party ballot and let someone else decide in judicial races.

Yes, the parties provide some good judicial candidates. But in trying to fill out the long ballot of judges, they have offered some real losers over the years, too. The ballot always contains some mediocre lawyers who like the looks of a county pension and some who will make actively bad judges. By not paying attention, Harris County voters have, at times, elected family law judges who refuse to show up in court, irreparably harming couples and children. They’ve elected criminal court judges who treat people of color differently. They’ve elected juvenile court judges who do harm to the most vulnerable of us, and they’ve elected appellate judges who simply are not up to the task.

It is heartbreaking for those who know which judges are good, or even great, only to see them swept out of office by blind party voting. We lost many great jurists this election. Maybe their replacements will be great, too, but at least some of them won’t.

Thanks to recent legislation, straight-party voting won’t be available when our judges are up for election in two years. But if we keep judges on a partisan ballot, people are still likely to use party as a voting crutch when they would likely do less harm by abstaining. Scholars who have studied judicial elections note that party affiliation is the primary factor in most people’s choices, followed by choosing a familiar sounding name. One Dallas judge believes he got a boost at the ballot box because his name sounds like a popular whiskey.

Friends say they voted straight party to send a message to the president or someone else in high office. But for years, straight-ticket voters have been sending powerful and uncaring messages to the unlucky litigants who wind up in front of one of the judges who is ill-equipped for the bench.

Author Mary Flood is a friend and a person of wisdom, but I do not agree with her proposal. I’ve addressed this a bunch of times, and my position hasn’t changed. Making judicial elections non-partisan removes information from voters, while incentivizing groups with a direct stake in the outcome of these elections, from plaintiffs’ lawyers to bail bondspeople to evildoers like Empower Texans to influence the vote, by which I mean “spend a lot more money than they do now to get judges they like elected”. You may say that it would be all right if the less-informed voters choose not to vote in these elections. I will say that encouraging people to not vote doesn’t sound like democracy to me.

If we must get rid of partisan elections, the only option that makes sense to me is an appointment system. If we’re going to go down that road, we’d damn well better engineer it in a way that doesn’t grant an excessive amount of power to any individuals or groups, does promote merit and diversity, and still allows for a way to oust someone who becomes a problem. I get that there are problems with the system we have. I’m sorry that some good judges will leave the bench, even as I voted against them. But until those who have been airing their complaints about this system come forward with a better one, I will continue to oppose any changes.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

The Democratic sweep of Harris County leadership posts in the midterm election could prompt a settlement in the protracted legal dispute over how judges handle bail for poor people arrested for petty offenses, according to statements made in federal court Tuesday.

The shift in attitudes became evident during an early morning hearing in Houston before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who has presided over the civil rights action since 2016 and ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Lawyers for both sides acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room: that all 14 county judges who oppose the bail lawsuit are Republicans who will be replaced in the new year by Democrats who have pushed for deeper bail reform.

Rosenthal congratulated the attorneys’ willingness to “accommodate any changes that have recently occurred in a reasonable way” and set a hearing for Feb. 1 where the lawyers may begin discussing plans for a possible settlement that would avert a costly trial.

[…]

Standing with [plaintiffs’ attorney Neal] Manne and others in the courthouse hallway after the hearing was Franklin Bynum, a 36-year-old Democratic Socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who was elected last week to the misdemeanor bench for County Criminal Court No. 8. Bynum said he’d read documents and sat through hearings in the historic bail case from the beginning.

“It was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge,” Bynum said.

He said he and his fellow Democratic candidates all promised residents on the campaign trail they intended to settle the bail lawsuit quickly.

“Certainly, we’re going to behave differently than the current judges did, like being obstinate …and defending the indefensible,” he said.

In April 2017, Rosenthal ruled that the county’s bail policy violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote that misdemeanor judges’ bail determinations amounted to wealth-based detention for poor defendants who could otherwise qualify for pretrial release, whereas similar defendants with money could resume their lives at home on bond.

The topic of a settlement surfaced again an hour later at the start of the first Commissioners Court meeting following the election.

A lawyer for County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench and the only judge to retain his seat in last week’s election, implored county leaders to “stop the hemorrhaging of money” and end their appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Basically, at this point there’s no one in power that wants to see this continue. County Judge-elect Hidalgo, County Commissioner-elect Garcia, and all of the incoming misdemeanor court judges ran on ending the lawsuit and implementing bail reform. We just need to do it, and we have every right to expect results after the new officials and judges are sworn in.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

Another reminder that the judicial elections are important

From the Trib:

Across the country, many public defender’s offices are overwhelmed with cases. But the public defenders in Harris County’s juvenile division are in an unusual situation: They say that they aren’t getting assigned enough cases. And advocates say cronyism between private attorneys and powerful judges is to blame.

An analysis of state and county data by The Texas Tribune shows that the county’s three juvenile district courts — led by Republican Judges Glenn Devlin, John Phillips, and Michael Schneider — have been assigning an extraordinary number of cases to a handful of private lawyers.

Meanwhile, the public defender’s office — which handles everything from probation violations to serious felonies and has strict caseload limits — has been receiving fewer assignments from those same courts.

A state-funded study found that a lawyer could reasonably handle at most 230 juvenile cases in a given year — and that’s only for minor cases, like misdemeanors or probation violations. Lawyers who also handle serious felonies could effectively manage a much smaller caseload, the study said.

But several private lawyers are taking on far more than that in Harris County, thanks mostly to appointments from the juvenile courts, according to data from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. Those courts are also appointing the same lawyers to dozens of family court cases, where the same judges preside over child custody disputes, protective orders and decisions for kids in foster care.

The Tribune found that:

  • Houston attorney Oliver Sprott took on 377 juvenile cases in the previous fiscal year, along with 126 family court cases and some probate cases. That work brought his total haul in taxpayer money for the year to about $520,000, data from the county auditor’s office shows.
  • Harris County paid attorney Bonnie Fitch about $350,000 last year for her work on 300 court-appointed juvenile cases, 71 family court cases and some probate work. Fitch is also a municipal court judge in the small city of Arcola, about 25 miles south of Houston.
  • Attorney Gary Polland earned about $515,000 for his court-appointed work in 227 juvenile cases, three juvenile appellate cases, more than 100 family court cases, and probate court cases. He also does civil and commercial litigation, according to his web site.

Norman Lefstein, a professor at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law, called such caseloads “ridiculous.” He added: “It’s a joke. It’s just a joke … It tells me immediately that you’re not really investigating the cases, and you’re not doing what you need to do … and young clients especially, they just don’t know any better.” Lefstein is considered a nationwide expert on acceptable caseloads.

That’s the same Gary Polland who’s been very busy soaking up appointment fees from the Family Courts as well. Great work if you can get it. And one thing Gary Polland works very hard at is getting those appointments:

Jay Jenkins, a lawyer with the reform-minded advocacy group the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said Harris County judges and lawyers have long been part of a “pay-to-play system” in which lawyers contribute to judge’s campaigns in exchange for appointments, or they help judges politically in other ways.

Sprott has donated $6,250 to Schneider’s re-election efforts since 2014, campaign finance records show, and Fitch gave him $3,500. Sprott has given Devlin $7,500 in the same time frame.

Attorney Mark Castillo has given Schneider and Devlin a combined $7,250 since 2014. He earned nearly $300,000 for his work in 360 juvenile cases in their courts last year, and some additional family court cases. He declined to comment for this story.

Polland has given Schneider and Devlin $1,000 each since 2014. He also edits an influential local political newsletter called the Texas Conservative Review, which recently endorsed Devlin, Schneider and Phillips for re-election.

Polland has also donated $2,500 to a new local political action committee called Citizens for a Quality Judiciary that has mailed out flyers encouraging voters to support local Republican incumbent judges: “It is too risky to hand over our courthouse to unqualified Democratic judicial candidates,” the flyer says. The PAC has also received donations from many other local lawyers who receive a large number of court appointments.

“What we ultimately got was a juvenile system where the lawyers get rich … and everybody wins but the kids,” Jenkins said.

There’s a simple fix for this. Vote those judges out, and the pipeline to these opportunists dries up. If you didn’t vote early, don’t miss out on Tuesday.

Projecting Tuesday turnout

Here’s the statewide view.

By the time the polls closed Thursday, 33.7 percent of registered voters in Bexar County had voted, well past the 17.3 percent turnout at the same point in 2014, the last midterm, and close to the presidential-year turnout recorded at the same point in 2012 and 2016.

And Bexar County’s election officials are not alone in having a lot to high-five each other about. Turnout during early voting in the state’s 30 largest counties easily surpassed the entire turnout – during the early voting period and on Election Day – of the 2014 midterm and continues to race toward the turnout seen in presidential election years.

In Harris County, the state’s largest county, 32.3 percent of registered voters had voted by the end of Thursday, compared to 15.5 percent at the same point in 2014. In Dallas County, the number was 35.1 percent, compared to 15.2 percent at the same point in 2014. Early voting turnout in Travis County had already surpassed total early voter turnout in both the 2014 midterm and the 2012 presidential election by the end of Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of unhappy and activist voters out there who have been wanting to vote for a long time,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk. She attributed the bump in the number of voters to President Donald Trump.

She said voter turnout dipped slightly earlier in the week, as is often the case, but that the numbers quickly rebounded toward the end of the week, which she said will help alleviate some traffic on Election Day.

[…]

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that the “blockbuster” turnout seen during early voting this year sets a new bar for future elections.

“It’s clear that much of the future of Texas will be fought in suburban Texas,” Rottinghaus said.

He said counties like Collin, Denton, Montgomery and Williamson saw a greater number of Democrats turning up to vote than in previous elections. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are going to win those counties, he said, but it does mean that they have become much more competitive.

“On one hand, suburban Texas is now younger and more ethnically diverse, replacing the first generation which is middle age and white” Rottinghaus said. “And Donald Trump and some of the inflammatory rhetoric have really caused a lack of interest among Republican women and college-educated voters in the suburbs.”

Rottinghaus said statewide Hispanic turnout is up slightly from 2014, which he said is “good but not great for Democrats.” While it looked like Democrats were doing better than Republicans in border counties early on in early voting, he said that it now looks like Republican voters are turning up in larger numbers.

“It’s not the groundswell that Democrats had hoped for,” Rottinghaus said.

The same story applies to young voters, Rottinghaus said. Although more young voters turned out in 2018 than in 2014, he said the 2016 presidential year still has both of the midterm years beat.

“This seems to show that younger voters, although inspired by an electric O’Rourke campaign, still need that push of a president at the top of the ticket to turn out,” Rottinghaus said.

I think what we’re going to get is going to be somewhere between 2008/2012 turnout, and 2016 turnout, which is the current high-water mark. The main question here is how many people who are going to vote have already voted. In previous off-year elections, a bit more than half of the vote – around 55% – is cast early. In Presidential years, the share of the early vote is higher, with that number spiking up in 2016. I’ll show the details later, but for now I’ll say this feels more like a Presidential year, but not exactly like one. As such, I think we’ll still see a decent number of voters on Tuesday, but for sure the bulk of the vote has already been cast.

Here are the Friday/final totals, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  52,112  392,536  462,527
2014  67,967  307,280  375,247
2018  89,098  766,613  855,711

2008  52,502  678,312  754,499
2012  66,310  700,216  766,526
2016  94,699  882,580  977,279

About where I thought we’d end up, though the potential was there for a bit more. I think the bad weather on Wednesday prevented some people from voting, with some of them shifting to Thursday or Friday and some of them still needing to vote. Here are a range of outcomes for final turnout based on what we’ve seen so far:

855,711 at 65% = 1,316,478
855,711 at 67% = 1,277,180
855,711 at 70% = 1,222,444
855,711 at 73% = 1,172,206
855,711 at 75% = 1,140,980

2008 EV = 63.5%
2012 EV = 63.7%
2016 EV = 73.0%

In other words, in 2008 and 2012 a bit more than 63% of the vote was cast early, while in 2016 that amount was 73 percent. My best guess, based entirely on gut feel, is that we’ll fall in the middle of that this year, which will put us in the 1.2 million range, or about the total for 2008 and 2012. It could still go higher or lower from there, and in the end the range of possibility is about 200K votes. The weather should be good on Tuesday, so at least there won’t be any nature-induced barriers.

One last thing to think about. In 2016, the top Republican votegetter was Tracy Christopher, who was running for the 14th Court of Appeals, with 621,960 votes, followed by Debra Ibarra Mayfield, running for the 165th District Court, with 621,060. The smallest number of votes any Democrat received who was on the ballot for everyone in the county was 610,648 by Grady Yarbrough, running for Railroad Commissioner. Most Republican judicial candidates, including all of the statewide judicials other than Eva Guzman and all of the courts of appeals candidates other than Christopher and Sherry Radack, failed to top Yarbrough’s total. If turnout really is 1.2 million or above, you tell me where the Republicans are going to get the votes to win Harris County.

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

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.

“The least-discussed vulnerable Republican on the ballot”

From Grits:

Grits does not expect Beto O’Rourke to win. But if he were to pull off the upset, many other dominos could fall in succession as a result, with at least three Republican senators, Texas’ Attorney General, and potentially even the Lt. Governor at risk. Another race likely to flip if Dem turnout goes that high is Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Incumbent Sharon Keller won her primary with only 52% of the vote, and CCA races have consistently been among the lowest vote-getters over the years among Republican statewide officials. There is no Libertarian in the race, so the Democrat, Maria Jackson, should get all the anti-incumbent vote. If, on election night, the US Senate race at the top of the ticket is competitive, or heaven forbid, Beto pulls an upset, check down the ballot for this race; it may flip, too.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The basis of this idea, which Grits has advanced before, is that in past elections Republicans have tended to drop off and not vote in downballot races more than Democrats have. If that is the case, and if the top of the ticket features a close race, then it stands to reason that other statewide races would be closer, and might even flip. I made the same observation early in the 2016 cycle when the polls were more favorable to Hillary Clinton in Texas. We seem to be headed for a close race at the top of the ticket this year, so could this scenario happen?

Well, lots of things can happen, but let’s run through the caveats first. First and foremost, Republicans don’t undervote in downballot races at the same pace in off years as they do in Presidential years. Here’s how the judicial vote totals from 2014 compared to the top of the ticket:


2014

Abbott - 2,796,547
Davis - 1,835,596

Candidate         Votes   Dropoff   Drop %
==========================================
Hecht         2,757,218    39,329     1.4%
Brown         2,772,824    23,723     0.8%
Boyd          2,711,363    85,184     3.0%
Richardson    2,738,412    58,135     2.1%

Moody         1,720,343   115,253     6.3%
Meyers        1,677,478   158,118     8.6%
Benavides     1,731,031   104,565     5.7%
Granberg      1,671,921   163,375     8.9%

Maybe if the hot race that year had been more closely contested we’d see something more like what we’ve seen in Presidential years, but so far this isn’t encouraging for that hypothesis.

The other issue is that it’s clear from polling that Beto is getting some number of Republican votes. That’s great for him and it’s a part of why that race is winnable for him, but the Republicans who vote for Beto are probably going to vote for mostly Republicans downballot. The end result of that is judicial candidates who outperform the guy at the top. Like what happened in 2016:


Trump    = 4,685,047
Lehrmann = 4,807,986
Green    = 4,758,334
Guzman   = 4,884,441
Keel     = 4,790,800
Walker   = 4,782,144
Keasler  = 4,785,012

So while Trump carried Texas by nine points, these judicial candidates were winning by about 15 points. Once more, not great for this theory.

Now again, nine points isn’t that close, or at least not close enough for this scenario to be likely. (I had suggested a maximum six-point spread in 2016.) Nine points in this context is probably a half million votes, and undervoting isn’t going to cut it for making up that much ground. But if Beto is, say, within four points (or, praise Jeebus, he wins), and if the reason he’s that close is primarily due to base Democratic turnout being sky high and not anti-Cruz Republicans, then the rest of the statewide ballot becomes very interesting. I personally would bet on Ken Paxton or Sid Miller going down before one of the Supreme Court or CCA justices, but the closer we are to 50-50, the more likely that anything really can happen. You know what you need to do to make that possible.

Eventually we’ll settle the debate about straight ticket voting and judicial races

But for now we have one last chance to provide a baseline for comparison.

As Harris County goes, so go its judicial races.

In three of the last five elections, a single party has swept every Harris judicial contest, with two going to Republicans and one to Democrats, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones’ analysis. In 2008, one of the two non-sweeps, Democrats won 85 percent of Harris County’s judicial contests.

During most wave years in Harris County, courthouse races go to the party whose candidate wins the top-of-the-ticket contest — the presidency or U.S. Senate — within the county.

The trend could end after 2018, the last year Texas will allow voters to cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by checking a single box. Lawmakers nixed straight-ticket voting through a bill signed last year by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The end of the straight-ticket option makes 2018 critical for judicial candidates, who, if they win, will have four or six years to raise money and gain name identification before facing re-election. By then, their fates will rest less on their party’s top-of-the-ticket performance and more on their own ability to draw support.

With some predicting a wave year for Democrats — or at least a favorable electoral environment — the party has a rare chance to avoid an electoral massacre during a midterm cycle.

“Democrats want to use this as an opportunity to pick up seats and build a bench,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “The opportunity here is massive.”

It is almost certainly the case that there will be fewer votes cast in judicial elections once the straight party ticket option is eliminated. How much it is reduced, and whether the reduction is uniform or if it varies by ballot type (absentee versus in person), early versus election day, geography, race, ethnicity, age, party, etc etc etc, are all questions we will get to explore in the coming years. I will say that some judicial candidates now are much more active and visible than others, but it’s far from clear to me that there’s any connection between an individual judicial candidate’s level of campaign activity and performance at the polls. From my very anecdotal perspective, I don’t see such a connection, but I make no claim to validity for that observation. I do hope someone more qualified than I will take a stab at quantifying that and other questions in 2020 and beyond.

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.

Hotze and the judges

From family law attorney Greg Enos, who publishes a legal blog/newsletter called The Mongoose (I’ve referenced him here before):

Real Journalists Should Investigate How Republican Judges Are Funneling Money to Hotze’s Hate Group

I am a full-time lawyer and only a part-time journalist. Real news organizations need to look into the facts and questions uncovered in my story in this issue and tomorrow’s issue about how Harris County Republican judges are giving money to a politically powerful and hateful bigot, Steven Hotze, and his partner in anti-LGBT insanity, Jared Woodfill. Judges are paying money to a mysterious company that Woodfill and Hotze apparently partly own even as Woodfill is appearing in front of those same judges as a lawyer and being appointed by those judges to CPS cases where the county pays Woodfill’s fees. Go ask those judges if they are disclosing to the attorneys who oppose Woodfill in their courts that there is a business relationship between the judges’ campaigns and a company Woodfill apparently co-owns.

There have been news stories and blog posts about Hotze’s oversized and malignant influence on local GOP politics. But, no journalist has so far delved deeply into how money flows between Hotze’s various PAC’s, how his influential slate mailer is paid for, or where payments from judges to Hotze actually go. My two part article published today and tomorrow attempts to unravel and explain the tangled financial web of hate involving Hotze, Woodfill and most of the Republican judges in Harris County.

I started this project by trying to find out if the judges were making illegal contributions to Hotze’s political action committees (PAC). I realized during my investigation that some of the judges did not know exactly where their checks to Hotze ended up. But, I did conclude, based on the limited information I was able to uncover, that the judges’ payments were not illegally made to a PAC.

However, what I did learn poses just as serious questions about judicial ethics and the integrity of our judicial system. I am also now really curious about why these judges are paying money to Hotze’s and Woodfill’s company and what exactly they get for those payments if they are not paying for inclusion in Hotze’s slate mailer. I have spent dozens of hours on this investigation, and I still have more questions than answers.

That’s Part 1. Here’s Part 2. Both are long and detailed, far too in depth for me to usefully excerpt, so go read them. Enos is up front about generally supporting Democrats, but has no problem crossing over to support judges he likes, as well as District Clerk Chris Daniel. Enos documented a bunch of bad behavior by Judges Alicia Franklin and Denise Pratt in 2014; see here for those archives. If he’s coming at you, he’s got the receipts. Lord knows, no one deserves to be thoroughly and humiliatingly defeated more than Steven Hotze, and no judge worthy of the name should want to be associated with him. Go read what Enos has to say on the matter.

Endorsement watch: Incumbency is no advantage, part 2

The Chron lays down a marker on the county criminal courts.

Each election cycle we determine our judicial endorsements by interviewing the candidates, researching their backgrounds, consulting with experts and coming to a conclusion about who best would be able to run a courtroom and see that justice is done. This year, however, one piece of evidence outweighed every other consideration for the Harris County criminal courts at law: Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal’s 193-page memorandum declaring the bail system in our misdemeanor courts in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection.

[…]

While some of Judge Rosenthal’s remedies have been altered by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the underlying facts remain undisturbed. Those facts are shocking to the conscience, and should be enough to convince our misdemeanor court judges to work with the plaintiffs suing the county over its unconstitutional practices and reach a settlement. That hasn’t happened. Instead, all the judges except two — one Democrat and one Republican — have spent millions in taxpayer funds fighting the case in court.

In meeting with these judges we heard plenty of reasons why they’re continuing to fight. Some said they believe the plaintiffs’ demands go too far. Others said they want to make sure judges don’t lose discretion in individual cases. A few were worried about the effect on public safety of letting people accused of misdemeanors out of jail without a cash bond. Overall they pointed to the courts’ slow but steady progress and work with the Arnold Foundation in crafting a risk-assessment tool to improve the bail system.

These excuses are not enough to justify the perpetuation of a criminal justice system that Rosenthal says has resulted in “thousands of constitutional violations” of both equal protection and due process.

That is why we recommend that every incumbent judge continuing to fight the bail lawsuit be removed from his or her seat.

We do not make this recommendation lightly. There will be unfortunate consequences that weaken our misdemeanor courts in the short term. Harris County will lose experienced judges. Diversion courts will need new leadership if they are to continue. It’s possible that over the next four years we’ll face different sorts of challenges and scandals in pursuit of a new kind of judiciary. Our star ratings may seem off as we endorse challengers against incumbents with higher scores. But this is about something bigger than individual judges. This is about a criminal justice system in dire need of reform.

The public needs to send a message that we will not tolerate the status quo, one that the judges have been content to live with for too long. The only way to chart a path forward is to remove the current judges — root, branch and all.

A-frickin’-men. There was literally no other moral way for the Chron to handle this, and they did not get it wrong. Good for them. Note that this line in the sand still allowed for them to endorse a decent number of Republicans, as there were multiple incumbent judges who did not run for re-election. Of the 15 misdemeanor races, the Chron picked seven Dems and six Republicans, with one dual endorsement and one non-endorsement. (Yes, even though “the Houston Chronicle editorial board’s policy is to avoid co-endorsements or non-endorsements”. I’ll let it slide this time, but I won’t let it go unmentioned.) You should click over and read the recommendations, but the main thing to know is, don’t vote for anyone who supports the unconstitutional bail system. We have the power to fix this. Let’s not screw that up.

Judicial Q&A: Tanya Garrison

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Tanya Garrison

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Tanya Garrison and am running for the 157th Judicial District Court. I am a New Mexico native that moved to Houston in 1997. I am a Mom, Wife, Daughter, Sister, Aunt, and Friend to some of the most amazing people in the world.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil cases in which one of the parties is seeking monetary relief in an amount of money in excess of $500, some sort of equitable relief, or declaratory relief.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have the experience necessary to be a great civil court judge. I also have the right perspective. believing that all people truly come into the court as equals regardless of race, national origin, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation or identity, education, wealth, or any other life circumstance. I also have the passion for this job as a true believer in the judicial system and the right to a trial by jury.

I believe that being a great judge in the courtroom is only part of the job. With great power comes great responsibility. I believe that anyone given the privilege of serving the community as a district court judge also has a responsibility to give back, and this comes through work with the bar association, pro bono efforts, and the community in general. I know the importance of mentoring and helping others in the profession. This is especially true when it comes to valuing the voices of women and minorities in the courtroom.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been practicing trial law for 18 years. I am Board Certified in Civil Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. I am a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates and the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists. In 2011, I was awarded the Woodrow B. Seals Outstanding Young Lawyer Award. I am a Past President of the Houston Young Lawyers Association and on the Board of Directors of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program.

5. Why is this race important?

A citizen's mostly likely contact with an elected official is in the courtroom. If someone is involved in a civil dispute, an accident in which legal action is required, employment discrimination, or a dispute with the taxing authority the presiding judge of a court like the 157th will be one of the most important people in their case. The judge involved in any case sets a tone for the entire proceeding, and people and advocates should know that they are going to get a fair trial. They should be confident that the judge has the necessary experience and the required empathy to fairly adjudicate the dispute and treat everyone with respect.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I can best summarize the reasons to vote for me in three points: (1) passion for the work; (2) experience; and (3) perspective.

    Passion.

  I truly love being a trial lawyer and working in the courtroom.  I respect all parts of the process and believe that when the law is applied equally, the right result is possible.  Being a Judge is my dream. 

    Experience.

  I have practiced civil trial law since I graduated law school in 2000 and have been a part of trial teams with over 20 commercial cases going to a full jury verdict.  I am Board Certified in Civil Appellate Law, and have almost 45 appeals with my name on them. 

    Perspective.

  I am someone who sincerely believes that the greatest part of our government is its people.  The strength of our judiciary comes from the diversity of our people coming together to participate in our jury system.  I am a lifelong Democrat who values all backgrounds and life experiences.  I want to create a courtroom experience that welcomes everyone despite the fact that courtrooms and the controversies that are resolved there are intimidating and difficult.  Everyone is entitled to a fair and impartial trial, and it is my goal to ensure that they get one.

Judicial Q&A: Donna Roth

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Donna Roth

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

I am Donna Roth. I am running for Judge of the 295th Civil District Court, Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 295th is a civil court of general jurisdiction. It is a district court which handles civil cases with amounts in controversy from $500 to any dollar amount. The court also has equity power to impose injunctions, restraining orders and declaratory judgments (a judgment that declares the rights of the parties). The court hears a wide variety of matters including but not limited to breach of contract, commercial disputes, personal injury, employment disputes, medical and legal malpractice, wrongful death, insurance disputes, corporate disputes, partnership/corporate dissolutions, property disputes, debt collection, bank foreclosures, attorney disbarment, attorney discipline and Harris County property tax collection.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The 295th is a civil trial bench. I have spent my professional career in the civil trial courts representing the people of Harris County, Texas. This bench is one where I can utilize my education, experience and life lessons to serve all the people of Harris County in a fair and equitable matter. Justice should be served with integrity, accountability and equality. I am running for the 295th to do just that!

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am a 1987 cum laude graduate from South Texas College of Law. For 31 years I have practiced civil trial law. I have extensive first chair jury trial experience, have litigated almost every type of case that could come before the court, have extensive trials before the bench and have mentored any number of younger lawyers by sitting second chair and assisting and advising. I represent people and families who have been seriously injured or lost a loved one because someone did something they should not have done or failed to do something they should have done. I am board certified in Personal Injury Trial Law and licensed not only in Texas but in Washington and New York. I have had active practices in all 3 states. As the managing partner of Roth & Associates since 1994 each person that has come to us for help has been treated fairly, equally and respectfully. It will be no different as your next judge of the 295th.

I have the patience and poise to listen to everyone who comes to the court seeking justice. Four years ago my daughter joined our firm as its newest associate. Nothing teaches patience and temperament like working six days a week with your only child. I will serve justice with integrity, accountability and equality. In the 31 years I have been practicing I have never had a judge enter an order referring to me as “unprofessional” or exhibiting “needlessly contentious conduct”. My opponent may not say the same.

5. Why is this race important?

Many, if not most people, will someday be required to come before a judge. Whether it be a civil judge, a family judge, a probate judge, a juvenile judge or a criminal judge, most people will find themselves before a court. If you have been fired and have to sue your employer for wrongful discharge or employment discrimination, or if you have been seriously injured or lost a family member because of another’s negligence, or if you have lost a limb or organ because of a medical facilities’ negligence, you would file such a lawsuit in a civil district court. If you have a property boundary dispute, a dispute with your homeowners’ association, or a disagreement with Harris County Appraisal District over the value of your property, you would file such a lawsuit in a civil district court.

Presiding over the determination of fair and adequate compensation for the loss of a loved one because of another’s negligence, whether one’s livelihood has been taken away without just cause, the value of one’s home, a contract or business dispute, or whether an insurance company should be required to reimburse you for the loss of a limb or organ are important matters that make this race and the determination of who the next judge in this court will be an important matter.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Experience:
The 295th Civil District Court is a civil trial bench. Because the role of the judge is to fairly and impartially try cases, trial experience is the most important qualification for voters to choose a candidate. As indicated by my qualifications, I can start working the day I am elected. I am also the candidate in this race that has received the endorsement of the three legal organizations who have screened and endorsed to date. In recognition of my experience and temperament these organizations in endorsing my candidacy have said that I am the candidate qualified to sit as the next Judge of this court. I have also been privileged to be acknowledged by my peers in the Houston Bar Association to be the candidate they believe is more qualified and preferred than my opponent.

I am a single mom. Four years ago my daughter, Andrea Roth, joined our firm as the newest associate. For the last four years I have worked full-time every day with my child. Nothing teaches patience and prepares you for the judicial temperament necessary to be a judge like working full-time with your only child.

Community Focused:
I maintain on my docket at least one pro bono case where I represent a woman in need of either a divorce, child support, child custody or a protective order. I volunteered after Hurricane Harvey and provided legal services at the hurricane victim’s assistance centers throughout the city. I volunteered for the Children’s Assessment Center and assisted participants at a skeet shoot. I serve as a “judge” at South Texas College of Law for the mock trial program. This I have done since I graduated law school in 1987. I also volunteered for nearly 10 years at JFK Elementary through Houston Trial Lawyer’s Foundation and mentored several 4th grade classes. I would spend approximately 2 hours each week with the class simply talking with them and encouraging them to be all that they can be. After months of practicing and rehearsing each year we would travel to the Harris County courthouse where the students would present the “Case of the Missing Cookies” to one of our civil judges. I feel that I have been fortunate in life to have obtained the education that I have received and to practice a profession I could only have dreamed about as a child. I want to share that with as many people as I can who cannot otherwise afford an attorney or someone to help them.

Justice for All:
It is important that we elect Judges who are fair and impartial, who do not have a preconceived notion about who should win before they hear any testimony or evidence. I have a passion for justice that has grown through my years of practice. I believe in the rule of law, I believe that each litigant that comes before the court, whether poor or rich, educated or not, whether represented by counsel or not, deserves a fair and impartial judge. Backed by my belief that justice and fair play are the fundamental values of the United States and Texas Constitutions, I am running for Judge of the 295th Civil District Court. My name is Donna Roth and I would consider it an honor and a privilege to serve as your next judge of the 295th Civil District Court in Harris County, Texas and I am, therefore, asking for your vote on November 6, 2018.

Judicial Q&A: Sarah Beth Landau

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Sarah Beth Landau

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Sarah Beth Landau. I’m a Harris County Public Defender and an adjunct professor of appellate litigation at Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. I am running for the First Court of Appeals, Place 6.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Court of Appeals hears all appeals from all cases ranging from civil to criminal, juvenile to probate, and family law, from a 10-county area.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The short answer is that we need balance, fairness, and diversity of experience on the court. I was a federal public defender for 10 years before I came to work for Harris County. I had appellate culture shock when I began representing indigent criminal defendants in state court because there are many errors at trial that go uncorrected by the Court of Appeals. These are the kinds of errors that would be corrected in federal court. I think we can do better.

In looking at why this was happening, I realized that not one justice on the Court of Appeals has significant criminal defense experience. Nearly all of the justices come from the same large-firm civil background. They are all from the same party. They vote all the same way on cases nearly all of the time. The Court and the law would benefit from justices with different backgrounds, particularly since criminal cases make up a large percentage of the court’s business.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law in a variety of settings for the last 20 years after graduating from Columbia University School of Law. I clerked for a federal judge and have done civil and criminal, public and private, state and federal, trials and appeals. Over the course of over 600 appeals, I have represented everyone from multinational corporations to average folks who could not afford to pay for an attorney. I have also taught and mentored law students for six years and enjoy giving back to my community through volunteer work and the arts.

5. Why is this race important?

The majority of the court is up for election this November so it is not just one or two seats at stake — control of the court is up for grabs. The court has been controlled by one party for over 20 years, so it is a key election for that reason as well. Most of the law is made at this level because the highest courts in Texas only accept a tiny fraction of cases for review. Most cases stop at the Court of Appeals level so the decisions of this court affect many people.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

This position is a logical next step on my path of service to our community. I have been a devoted public servant for 12 years. This season, I have been fortunate enough to receive the endorsement of several non-partisan organizations, including the Association of Women Attorneys and the Mexican American Bar Association. I believe we can do better in extending justice to all who come before the court. It is time for a change.

Judicial Q&A: Chuck Silverman

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Chuck Silverman

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

I am Chuck Silverman and I am the Democratic Party candidate for the 183rd Criminal District Court in Harris County, Texas.

I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas and attended Tulane University where I received my undergraduate, master's and law degrees. I have lived in Houston since 1986. I am married and have three children. In my spare time I enjoy cycling and shooting skeet and sporting clays.

For more information please visit www.Chuck4Judge.com.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 183rd District Court handles felony cases. Felonies are the most serious criminal cases and include murder, aggravated robbery, and sexual assault. The sentences in these cases can range from a period of probation to life imprisonment or in some instances, death.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this bench because I am passionate about the law and how it should be applied equally and fairly to all, regardless of race, religion or financial situation.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have a broad range of legal experience that will serve me well as a district court judge. I have practiced law for over three decades and have represented hundreds of clients in state and federal trial and appellate courts. In addition to my litigation experience, I have represented clients in administrative hearings and alternative dispute resolution forums throughout Texas. For the last 11 years I have been the General Counsel of a multinational corporation. I believe that a judge must be an effective administrator and a fair-minded decision maker. I am confident that I can be both.

5. Why is this race important?

One of the major issues facing the criminal justice system in Harris County is the fact that for too long Harris County has had two systems of justice. One for those who have money and the other for those who don’t. A significant percentage of those incarcerated in the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial. Consequently, I think there is a need to reform the systemic denial of personal recognizance bonds to nonviolent defendants in felony cases.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

My hard work ethic, calm demeanor, impartiality, courtroom experience and knowledge of the law make me a superior candidate. I have more than 32 years of legal experience and have many published appellate court decisions. Additionally, I have a good judicial temperament, would be fair to lawyers and litigants and have the extensive depth of legal knowledge required of a district court judge.