Tucked away in the hundreds of bills pre-filed for consideration by the 2013 Legislature is one that would eliminate straight-party voting in judicial elections. The bill is one of nine filed recently by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
So, Patrick’s proposal is an intriguing one. Judicial selection in Texas is somewhat like the weather: more a topic for discussion than action.
Though Texans fiercely defend their right to vote for judges, judicial races attract few donors and less interest than races for legislative and executive offices. Candidates and advocates for reform note that voters in judicial races know precious little about the people who seek to wield the power to redirect lives and money.
Judicial candidates are restricted in what they can say on the stump and in campaign materials. Judicial candidates are prohibited from expressing opinions on cases that come before them or state opinions on hot button topics like abortion or the death penalty.
As a consequence, only the most diligent voters know much about the judicial candidates on the general election ballot. That in turn makes challenging incumbents a dicey proposition. Inertia or a catchy ballot name becomes a political asset for judges who might not otherwise have much to recommend them.
Neither party has the market cornered on judicial wisdom. Domination of the state’s judiciary by either party invites complacency and mediocrity. Straight-ticket voting doesn’t ensure fair judges; it ensures that the dominant party elects their judges.
By and large, Texans have been lucky. Considering all that could go wrong in a system where voters are mostly voting in the dark for their judges, very little has. Nonetheless, the threat is real when judicial selection is dictated by partisan whim.
“Depending on whether it’s a Democrat wave or a Republican wave year to year, all judges of that party either get blown out or they get blown in,” Patrick said.
The measure will get the attention of party brass and, of course, judges up and down the ballot. It will be a good discussion to have, though. Because he is a Republican and because he is a conservative stalwart, Patrick is as ideal a sponsor for the bill as it could get. If a Democrat filed it, the bill would drown in the derisive laughter that would greet it. Parties out of power, after all, generally want to overhaul judicial selection because their team is losing. Parties in power obviously like things the way they are.
Patrick’s bill could be motivated by a desire for a nonpartisan bench or the fact that Harris County has voted Democrat in the past two presidential elections. If partisanship is indeed the issue, then the move ought to be to making judicial races nonpartisan ones.
The obvious downside is there is no guarantee that voters will seek independent information on records and qualifications of judicial candidates. Frankly, one of the few things voters know when voting in judicial races is the party affiliation. The most diligent of them might have read a voter’s guide or a newspaper endorsement. Nothing in Patrick’s bill will enhance a judicial candidate’s access to public eyes and ears.
We have watched a progression of candidates who would have made excellent judges fail to get elected merely because they had the wrong letter after their names. Patrick’s bill won’t cure that, but it will make partisans work harder to find and maybe think a bit before casting a ballot.