Speaker Joe Straus said the state should end straight-party voting. Prompted by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht’s State of the Judiciary address, Straus said, “Too often, good men and women are swept out of down-ballot offices due to the political winds at the moment.”
Speaking before a joint session of the Legislature, Hecht called for removing judicial elections (pdf) from straight-party voting. “Many good judges lost solely because voters in their districts preferred a presidential candidate in the other party,” Hecht said. “Qualifications did not drive their election. Partisan politics did.”
Texas and Alabama are the only states that initially elect, then re-elect, its judiciary in partisan elections where voters may cast a single vote for all candidates of a political party. Texas has the highest rate of straight-party voting among the 10 states that still use it, resulting in very little spread between the highest and lowest shares of the vote among a party’s judicial candidates at any level of geography.
A recent study by Rice University’s Mark Jones observed the same effect. Jones found that more than 90% of all Texas judges elected were part of a partisan sweep of judicial offices at the state, appellate district and county level from 2008 to 2016. Further, the trend is toward a greater percentage of partisan sweeps.
“Judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” Hecht said. “Removing judges from straight-ticket voting would help some, and merit selection followed by nonpartisan retention elections would help more.”
Late last year, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala announced she would not seek re-election “results from partisan judicial elections are too random and unreliable for me to engage in this process for a fifth time.” Alcala added, “I have seen too many qualified judges lose their bids for election or reelection, and I have witnessed the converse situation too.”
In a statement, Speaker Joe Straus said he agreed with Hecht, “but we shouldn’t stop there. Texas should join 40 other states and end straight-ticket voting in all elections.”
Two years ago, Hecht raised the issue but made no specific request (pdf) because he had “no consensus solution.” At the time, Hecht said judicial election results “are usually the product of campaign spending, familiar names, political swings and blind luck.” Bills to limit or end straight-party voting died in the House Elections Committee last session. In 2009, Straus filed a bill to end straight-ticket voting. It did not receive a hearing. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s 2013 bill to exclude the judiciary from straight-party voting cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee on a 5-4 vote but did not reach the Senate floor. One of those ayes was Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who now chairs the State Affairs Committee.
Former Chief Justices Tom Phillips and Wallace Jefferson also fought unsuccessfully for judicial selection reform during and after their tenures on the court.
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