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Insight Denton: Why do we elect judges under party labels?

Court judges are meant to be the most impartial and independent folks in the land, so it might be surprising to some when we see judicial candidates on our ballot labeled as Republican or Democrat. However, it has been that way in Texas for nearly 150 years.

Before 1876, the Texas governor appointed judges to the bench with Senate approval, but some believed that this gave the governor too much power. Once the Constitution of 1876 was adopted, state judges at every level became elected officials.

"I think what rubbed people the wrong way is that you'd have the Supreme Court [appointed by the president] come in and invalidate state laws — unelected federal judges legislating from the bench," said Eddie Meaders, a University of North Texas political science lecturer who got his law degree from Texas Tech University.

But elections are expensive. Soon, judicial candidates began filling their coffers, with much of the money coming from attorneys and individuals who would appear before them in court. In 1988, the state supreme court races became the most expensive in Texas history with 12 candidates raising a total of $12 million.

To put down notions of impropriety, legislators passed the 1995 Judicial Campaign Fairness Act, which put limits on the amount of contributions judicial candidates could accept.

Meaders said the partisan labels of today act as a springboard for voters.

"The party labels help because it gives voters an idea of where the judges stand," he said. "A judge is not going to ignore a blatant violation of the Constitution but at the end of the day, people vote because of that partisan identifier."

Watchdog groups and some former judges argue that it is time for Texas to do away with the partisan elections and political pressures for judicial candidates.

"A justice system built on some notion of Democratic judging or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted," said former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson in 2011. "I would eliminate straight-ticket voting that allows judges to be swept from the bench, not for poor work, not for bad ethics, not for bad temperament, not even for controversial but courageous decisions — but purely because of party affiliation."

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