Texas chief justice calls for judicial election reform

Chris Rizo Feb. 13, 2009, 3:27pm

Wallace Jefferson (R)

AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline) - Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson says the Lone Star State ought to change the way it elects its judges to help take the influence of money out of judicial politics.

Delivering his biennial State of the Judiciary address to
legislators, the Republican chief justice said lawmakers should consider a system in Texas in which judges are appointed based on merit then held for retention votes.

"A merit system, in which voters later vote the judge up or down, is the best remedy, but I commend any innovation in which the goals are to recruit and retain qualified judges, and to reduce the role of money in judicial campaigns," Jefferson told lawmakers.

Texas is just one of only seven states that holds partisan judicial elections.

Austin-based Texans for Public Justice has also proposed the merit selection for Supreme Court justices. Under their proposal, the governor would appoint justices from a list of nominees put forth by a nominating committee. The justices would then face retention votes after some time on the high court.

Jefferson said he is also concerned that straight-ticket voting determines judicial election winners could be based solely on party affiliation. He noted there was a series of partisan sweeps in 1994, 2006 and 2008 in urban counties.

"We have witnessed partisan sweeps in our courts of appeals and high courts," Jefferson said. "I would like to claim that voters gave me the honor of continued service because of stellar credentials, but it may just as well have been tied to (Republican presidential nominee John) McCain's success in Texas."

Jefferson added that justice "must be blind" to political affiliations.

"The rule of law resonates across party lines," he said.

Jefferson was appointed to the high court by Gov. Rick Perry and later elected in 2005. His current term ends December 31, 2014.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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