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RK Sandill

Initial reactions: Statewide

I’m going to do a few of these “Initial reaction” posts about Tuesday’s elections as I try to make sense of all that happened. Here we go.

Let me start with a number. Two numbers, actually: 4,017,851 and 48.26%. The former is how many votes Beto O’Rourke has right now, and what his percentage of the vote was. That first number, which may still creep up a bit as there are a tiny number of precincts unreported as I write this, is the largest vote total any Texas Democrat has ever received. It’s more than 500K greater than Barack Obama in 2008, and it’s about 130K greater than Hillary Clinton in 2016. I had thought Clinton’s 3,877,868 votes were the absolute ceiling for any Dem this cycle, but I was wrong. Somehow, Beto O’Rourke built on what Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That is truly amazing.

Oh, and do note that Beto’s losing margin was 2.68 points, which was closer than all but four of the polls taken in this race – the one poll where he was tied, the one poll where he was leading, the one poll where he was trailing by one, and the one poll where he was trailing by two. It couldn’t have been easy for the pollsters to model this year’s electorate, but when they did they were generally more pessimistic about this race – though not necessarily about the state as a whole – than they should have been.

Now here are two other numbers to consider: 4,685,047 and 4,884,441. The former is what Donald Trump got in 2016, and the latter is what Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman got that same year. Those are our targets for 2020, to truly make Texas a competitive electoral battleground. We know a lot of people with no previous electoral history voted this year, and I think it’s safe to say most of them voted for Beto. We need to figure out who the people are that did vote in 2016 but not in 2018, and make sure they vote in 2020. We also need to keep registering voters like crazy, and keep engaging the voters we got to come out this year. I know everyone is sad about Beto falling short – at this writing, he trails by 2.57 percentage points, which among other things means that the polls generally did underestimate him – but we need to stay focused and work to ensuring the level he achieved is a stepping stone and not a peak.

By how much did Beto outperform the Democratic baseline? First we have to decide what the baseline was. For the executive offices, the totals are bifurcated:


Valdez     3,520,868   Collier   3,833,069
Chevalier  3,545,626   Nelson    3,870,345
Suazo      3,540,153   Olson     3,794,683
McAllen    3,586,198

One might argue that Collier and Nelson and Olson might have done better if they’d had more money. Maybe, but there was a ton of money spent in the Senate race, and it’s not clear to me what the marginal effect of another million or two might have been. It’s hard for me to imagine any of them making it over the top if Beto wasn’t at least within automatic-recount distance of Cruz. The point here is that there was significant variation in these contests. That’s one reason why I usually default to the judicial races as my benchmark for partisan strength:


Kirkland   3,820,059
Sandill    3,765,102
Cheng      3,769,290
Jackson    3,707,483
Franklin   3,723,541

Much closer, as you can see. They lost by a range of 6.55 points (Kirkland) to 8.39 points (Franklin). In 2016, the closest any statewide Democratic judicial candidate got was Dori Garza’s 13.22 point loss. Based on the 2018 vote totals, I’d say the Democratic baseline is around 3.7 to 3.8 million. Compare the judicial race vote totals from this year to 2016:


Kirkland   3,820,059   Westergren  3,378,163
Sandill    3,765,102   Garza       3,608,634
Cheng      3,769,290   Robinson    3,445,959
Jackson    3,707,483   Meyers      3,496,205
Franklin   3,723,541   Johnson     3,511,950
                       Burns       3,558,844

That’s a nice step up, though do note that in 2016 all of the statewide judicial races also had a Libertarian candidate, and all but one also had a Green, while this year only Terri Jackson had company from a third party. Still and all, I think this shows that Beto wasn’t the only Dem to build on 2016. It also suggests that Beto got on the order of 300K crossover votes, while Collier and Nelson and Olson got 100K to 150K.

I don’t have any broad conclusions to draw just yet. We built on 2016. We still have room to grow – remember, as high as the turnout was this year, beating all off years as well as 2008 and 2012, turnout as a percentage of registered voters was still less than 53% – and with the right candidates we can attract some Republican voters. We should and we must make our goal be a competitive state for the Presidential race in 2020. I’ll look at the county by county canvass later, then of course do some precinct level reporting when the dust clears a bit. In the meantime, read Chris Hooks’ analysis for more.

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

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

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

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

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

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

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

RK Sandill

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

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

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

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

Add our endorsement to the list.

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

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

Terri Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Countiss

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

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

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

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

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

Five out of six ain’t bad

Five Democratic candidates for six statewide judicial positions, all from Harris County.

Four state district and county-level judges from Harris County and a Houston civil-litigation lawyer filed for seats on the Texas Supreme Court and the state Court of Criminal Appeals at state Democratic headquarters.

“The only time they open the courts is when it suits their cronies,” said state District Judge Steven Kirkland of Houston, referring to the nine Republicans on the Texas Supreme Court.

[…]

Harris County Civil Court Judge Ravi K. Sandill, who seeks Republican Justice John Devine’s Place 4 seat on the state Supreme Court, said voters would reject the leadership styles of Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We’ve got a bully in the White House. We’ve got a governor who’s a bully,” he said. “Texans stand up to bullies.”

[…]

Kathy Cheng, a native of Taiwan, said she’s been “the voice for people who don’t have a voice” in nearly 20 years of private law practice. She filed for the Place 6 seat of Republican Justice Jeff Brown.

Signing paperwork to run for Court of Criminal Appeals were Maria T. Jackson, presiding judge of the 339th state District Court in Harris County, and Ramona Franklin, who’s judge there in the 338th.

Jackson filed for the presiding judge seat now held by Republican Sharon Keller of Dallas. Franklin is seeking the Place 7 seat of Republican Barbara Hervey of San Antonio.
“No matter where you live or what you look like or who you love, in my courtroom, you’re going to receive justice,” she said.

Kirkland and Sandill you knew about. Jackson was elected in 2008 and has been re-elected twice. Franklin was elected in 2016. Cheng ran for the 1st Court of Appeals in 2012. The Chron story says that a sixth candidate is not expected to come forward, which is too bad. It’s great that Harris County is representing like this, but surely there’s someone somewhere else in the state who can throw a hat in the ring. Be that as it may, best of luck to these five.

Kirkland for Supreme Court

Good.

Steven Kirkland

Houston State District Court Judge Steven Kirkland has announced his candidacy for a seat on the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, making him the first openly gay candidate to run for the state’s highest civil court.

Kirkland, a Democrat, is seeking Place 2 on the court, which is currently held by Justice Don Willett. Willett was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by President Donald Trump in September, setting the stage for an open primary if Willett wins Senate confirmation.

“I’m running because the Texas Supreme Court has entered far too many decisions recently that reek of politics and it’s time to change that,” Kirkland said.

Kirkland points to the court’s recent unanimous decision on June 30 in Pidgeon v. Turner, which ruled that the City of Houston should not have extended its benefits policy to same-sex couples as a primary example of a political decision.

Kirkland notes that since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide that “marriage means marriage.”
“They were thumbing their noses at the law and thumbing their noses at the U.S. Supreme Court, all to protect themselves in the Republican primary,” Kirkland said of the ruling.

He’s dead-on right about that, and with any luck our state Supreme Court will get smacked down by the federal one. Kirkland’s candidacy, whatever happens next November, will provide an opportunity to remind everyone what a crappy and craven ruling that was, and that we the people have a chance to do something about it. Kirkland joins his colleague RK Sandill in mounting a statewide race. (Like Sandill, Kirkland is not on the ballot for district court again until 2020.) We need one more to fill out this slate, plus three for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Much as I love these guys, I do hope we get some candidates from outside Harris County as well. OutSmart has more.

RK Sandill for State Supreme Court

Very good news, from the inbox:

Judge RK Sandill

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

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

It is time for a change.

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

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

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

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

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

Judicial Q&A: Judge RK Sandill

(Note: I ran a series of judicial Q&As for Democratic candidates in contested primaries earlier this year. I am now doing the same for the candidates who were unopposed in March, which includes most of the sitting incumbent judges. As always, this is to help you the voter know a little bit more about the candidates on your ballot. I will be publishing these in the order I receive them. You can see the Q&As and interviews I did for the primaries on my 2016 Election page.)

Judge RK Sandill

Judge RK Sandill

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Judge R.K. Sandill. I preside over the 127th Civil District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The civil courts preside over matters that include commercial, personal injury, consumer and tax litigation. The matters range in value from $500 and above. The civil courts also deal with issue related to health warrants, medical emergencies, and matters as odd as allowing for the reinternment of human remains.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

Since taking office in January 2009, I have tried over 200 cases and disposed of more than 12,000 matters. I have worked hard to improve docket management, jury relations and to facilitate the litigation needs of counsel and their matters. As one of the first judges in Harris County to adopt e-filing, I have also worked to utilize technology as a tool to improve the litigation process. I believe strongly in respecting all who appear in my court, as well as their time and resources. As such, I was pleased to be rated “well qualified” or “qualified” by over 77% of respondents in the 2016 HBA Judicial Qualifications poll.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I strive continually to improve my courtroom work and make the 127 th work as efficiently and effectively as possible for those who appear there. By allowing FaceTime and Skype to be used to call witnesses, I will continue to leverage technology to alleviate costs and time constraints for litigants. I am also exploring the possibility of having hearings and status conferences in this same manner.

5. Why is this race important?

Our civil courts are a critically important aspect of our judicial system. They offer citizens the chance to have their day in court, with a trial before a jury of their peers. The public forum offered by the courts allows for transparency. In the last ten years, we have seen a shift away from transparency when it comes to resolving disputes. Because of this, we need to elect and re-elect high quality judges to these benches so that the public trust remains in our constitutionally protected judicial system.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I believe my experience and record of success as Judge of the 127 th District Court merit my re-election. I have consistently received high ratings from the attorneys who practice in Harris County courts. As the first and only judge of South Asian descent in Harris County, I bring valuable diversity of background and experience to our local judiciary. Further, because of my varied experience (grew up in a military family and a cancer survivor), I bring different perspective to the Harris County judiciary.

Further, because I work hard, understand the issues before me and attempt to make all those that appear in my courtroom feel welcomed and respected, I have the respect of the lawyers that appear before me. This election cycle I have been endorsed by the Houston Lawyers’ Association, the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston, and the Association of Women Attorneys, which comprise all the non-partisan legal organizations that endorse in Harris County. For all these reasons, plus because I love what I do, I ask the people of Harris County to vote for me in this election.

Endorsement watch: Civil court incumbents

Keeping up with the weekly endorsement schedule, we have round one of Civil Court endorsements, as there are many Civil Court races this year.

HarrisCounty

11th Civil District Court: Kevin Fulton

The candidates in this race to replace outgoing Judge Mike Miller are both living proof of the American Dream. Republican Kevin Fulton, our choice for the bench, grew up in gritty South Central Los Angeles. The family of his Democratic opponent Kristen Hawkins fled Communist Hungary. Both candidates went on to graduate from law school and start their own firms. Both have the right temperament and work ethic to succeed on the bench.

61st Civil District Court: Erin Elizabeth Lunceford

Gov. Greg Abbott chose well when he appointed Erin Elizabeth Lunceford, 55, to this court in July 2015, and voters should give her a full term. A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Lunceford, a Republican, has 27 years of practice, is board certified in Personal Injury Trial Law and is also an associate member of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

80th Civil District Court: Larry Weiman

When civil judges want to brag about their number of jury trials, the size of their dockets and their overall productivity, they compare themselves to Judge Larry Weiman.

125th Civil District Court: Kyle Carter

Democrat Kyle Carter – first elected to the bench in 2008 – gets our nod for another term. This graduate of the South Texas College of Law genuinely seems to love his job and to view it as an opportunity not only to administer justice but to help people. Carter, 40, said that he’s started an organization, Judges At Work in Schools, and visits local schools to educate students about the judicial system, career opportunities and the importance of education.

127th Civil District Court: R.K. Sandill

Judge R.K. Sandill, 40, admits that he’s developed a reputation for being curt. He expects lawyers to come prepared and has no patience for counsel who waste his and their client’s time. But over his two terms, this hard-working, qualified judge has learned how to keep the docket moving without being too harsh on the attorneys.

129th Civil District Court: Michael Gomez

Voters should return Democrat Michael Gomez to the bench for four more years. Although his numbers in the Houston Bar Association judicial qualification poll weren’t stellar when he was first elected in 2008, Gomez has grown into the role and last year he was awarded Judge of the Year by the Hispanic Bar Association of Houston. According to Gomez, 42, anyone who “loves his job the way I do is always looking for a way to do things better.”

133rd Civil District Court: Jaclanel McFarland

Judge Jaclanel McFarland brings a lot of personality and small-town common sense to her court. In meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, the two-term Democratic judge explained how she hates it when opposing counsel just rely on email instead of actually talking to each other.

The 11th is an open bench, while the 61st was filled by appointment after Judge Al Bennett was elevated to federal court. The rest are all Democratic incumbents. The next batch contains four Democratic incumbents (Englehart, Schaffer, Smoots-Hogan, Palmer), one Republican incumbent (Halbach), and two Republican appointees (Mayfield Ibarra and Dorfman). There’s one incumbent I don’t expect the Chron to endorse (Palmer); beyond that, we’ll see.