Wallace Jefferson

The first time I voted in a general election (2012), I was shocked at just how long the ballot was. The presidential election had obviously garnered a fair amount of coverage, as did local races for Congress, sheriff and the state Legislature. However, what took up the vast majority of the ballot were the myriad judicial contests. Pages upon pages of district and county benches were to be filled by the voters, in partisan elections. Democratic and Republican nominees had been selected in their respective parties’ primaries to run for the posts: civil, criminal, family, juvenile and probate courts.

Texas is one of only a handful of states that choose their judges by this method. From the county courts to the state Supreme Court, every judge must pick a party and face the voters. If you think this is a rather inefficient way of selecting judges, you are definitely not alone. Indeed, even Wallace Jefferson, the former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has disavowed the age-old practice repeatedly, perhaps most notably in a Houston Chronicle op-ed he penned in 2009. 

“My success depended primarily on a straight-ticket partisan vote,” Jefferson wrote in the aforementioned op-ed, shortly after being re-elected to a third six-year term at the helm of the court. Jefferson asserted that, despite his arguably impeccable credentials, he was elected time after time “because Texans voted for Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John McCain.” The drawbacks of this system are somewhat apparent, as partisan tides are an unreliable and untrustworthy way to choose such an invaluable arbiter of justice as a judge. (In a spirit of full disclosure, I should note that my father is a candidate for judge in my native Harris County.) 

There are, of course, some benefits to the policy as well. With literally dozens of judicial posts up for grabs every few years, nonpartisan elections would produce utter pandemonium, as low-information or otherwise casual voters would have little way to discern the plethora of candidates from one another. Then there is the issue of local control. In Massachusetts, for example, where I previously attended college, all judges are appointed by the governor. Under the current system, progressives in Austin, Houston and other settings are free to repudiate the politics of the state government, and other remote areas may feel free to make their own decisions.

However, there exist countless real examples of these issues of local control. Last Monday, Perry filled an opening in the 212th District Court in Galveston County, recently vacated by Judge Susan Criss, a Democrat. Not only did the governor replace her with a Republican, but he picked this particular replacement over the objection of the region’s state senator, who is also a stalwart conservative Republican. 

“It is an unprecedented action for a Governor to overrule the objection of the hometown Senator whose district includes the appointee,” State Sen. Larry Taylor wrote in a press release. Unprecedented, maybe. But this would be the rule — not the exception — if we moved to a Massachusetts-style system of judicial selection.

“I am in favor of electing judges,” Judge Mike Engelhart recently told me. Engelhart, a Civil District Judge in Harris County, qualified his remarks by noting that a nonpartisan election, one even guided by a nominating committee (a diverse group of appointees with some discretion over the candidates) or the State Bar, would be preferable. However, he strongly reiterated his support for elected judges, noting, “I am in favor of democracy; I think voters should have a say in the judicial branch.” 

The common consensus among many observers, including Jefferson and Engelhart, seems to be that Texas’ current process is imperfect. Engelhart firmly believed corruption is inextricably attached to the money inherent to politics. “We need to get the money out of these races,” he said. “Strict fundraising and spending limits are needed.” I agree. Fundraisers and corporate campaign donations are surely the type of influence we want out of our judicial system, whether it is one elected by the people or not, and the improvement needed will be one that retains local control but curbs the corruption of politics. 

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston.

Horns Up: After a great deal of controversy and debate, the San Antonio City Council voted 8-3 to include the LGBT community in its list of classes protected from discrimination. Although Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth all have similar protections on the books, the updated ordinance in San Antonio became a hotly contested issue in recent weeks. City Councilwoman Elisa Chan came under fire after being caught on tape calling homosexuality “disgusting,” and opponents of the ordinance mounted a campaign suggesting that it would be used to erode religious liberty in the city. Religious liberty does not grant anyone license to persecute others for their identity, and we applaud San Antonio for extending protection to its gay and transgender citizens.

Horns Down: Dear no-reply@manage-pna.gw.utexas.edu, words cannot express how much we resent you for informing us, with the smart-alecky “Ooops!” of one who knows they are a safe distance away from a punch in the face, that we are “out of bandwidth.” We’ve been here for, like, a week, and it’s way too soon to have to pay five dollars like some sort of internet-junkie Oliver Twist just to research the rest of this Horns Up, Horns Down.

Horns Up: Nine years of service as the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court is more than enough.  But even so, we’re sad to see Wallace Jefferson go. Jefferson, who currently holds the position, announced this week that he will resign at the end of the month. During his time as Supreme Court Justice, Jefferson, the first African-American to hold the office, promoted initiatives for transparency in the courts and pushed reforms to the juvenile justice system. Chief Justice Jefferson smartly considered the practical policy decisions of his legal choices and consequently helped foster a culture in the court that considered the needs of all Texans. He will be missed.

Horns Down: The 2013 grape harvest in Texas has proven to be one of the worst in recorded history. Texas Monthly reported that due to a string of record-breaking spring freezes in March and April vines are under-producing or dying at such a level that the summer harvest has been reduced practically to nothing. It’s bad news for Texas wine aficionados, but even worse news for the growers and their employees. One can only hope for better luck next year.

 

Texas State Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson delivered a key note address at the Thomposon Conference Monday afternoon. The symposium was held in honor of Barbara Jordan Freedom Week

Photo Credit: Batil Joselevitz | Daily Texan Staff

Not only a pioneer in Texas’ political and civil rights arenas, Houston native Barbara Jordan was also a faculty member at UT where she is remembered each year on her birthday.

Jordan will be celebrated during her birthday week with student-led events from Feb. 21 to Feb. 24. The Barbara Jordan Freedom Foundation began Jordan’s birthday week by commemorating her ideals as an educator in a symposium on the issue of school discipline Monday at the Thompson Conference Center. Law and education officials, as well as policy makers and concerned citizens, discussed proper ways of enforcing discipline at the forum.

Jordan, the first African-American elected senator in Texas and civil rights movement leader, held a 17-year career as a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in the last years of her life.

Wil Flowers, former judge and current chair of the Barbara Jordan Freedom Association, said the Foundation was established to perpetuate issues that were extremely meaningful to Jordan such as education, children, juvenile justice and racial equity.

“The most memorable aspect of Barbara was her voice,” Flowers said.” We have chosen to have our inaugural project focus on the problems relating to school discipline. She would have lent her voice to call for change.”

Wallace Jefferson, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, was the keynote speaker at the symposium and said Jordan was an extraordinary leader and generous mentor. He said the purpose of the symposium was to carry out her mission.

Jefferson said the panels were held to shed light on the issues in the school discipline system that is driving students away from school and how Jordan would have been troubled by the current state of the juvenile justice system.

“Compassionate and driven, she worked to end injustice and wanted to ensure that all children would receive the type of education that makes tomorrow’s society better than today,” Jefferson said.

Michele Deitch, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, moderated the first panel of the symposium, which explained the current state of the middle and high school disciplinary systems.

The first panel discussed research collected by justice and education officials which found a trend of a high number of ticket fines, suspensions and expulsions for discretionary violations dealing with the school’s student code of conduct.

“The symposium is to help understand the scope of the problem,” Deitch said. “We want to have a shared understanding of the issue and learn effective approaches other than suspending, expelling and ticketing kids.”

Other panels discussed effective intervention methods for misbehaving students and the implementation of reforms at the school district level in order to shift the culture surrounding school discipline.

The 16th annual Barbara Jordan National Forum, hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs, will continue throughout the week. The theme of the discussions this week are based on a quote from her famous keynote address to the 1976 Democratic Convention, “We the People: The America we Pursue, Empowering People Through Collaboration and Ethical Leadership to Create Innovative Solutions.”