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Renewed Push for Judicial Reforms

Shining a light on the Texas judiciary

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Feb. 20, 2009

Wallace Jefferson
Wallace Jefferson

In his State of the Judiciary speech on the floor of the Texas House last week, Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jeffer­son again expressed concern about the influence of campaign contributions and partisan politics in the election of judges. And once again, Jefferson is calling for an end to that system. "If the public believes that judges are biased toward contributors, then confidence in the courts will suffer," he said. "So, I ask the question: Is our current judicial election system, which fuels the idea that politics and money play into the rule of law, the best way to elect judges in Texas?"

Many Texas court watchers, of course, would answer a resounding "no." Still, the call to end partisan election of judges is hardly new, and it most certainly won't happen any time soon. Jefferson said he hoped to work with state lawmakers on judicial reforms that would increase access to justice and make the judiciary more transparent.

On the heels of Jefferson's speech, Austin Sen. Kirk Watson joined with seven colleagues (six Dems and one Republican, Arlington Sen. Chris Harris) to file Senate Bill 780, which would make public how each Supreme Court judge votes in deciding whether to accept individual cases for review. Only about 10% of cases appealed to the court are actually accepted for consideration – so "a lot of law gets made just [by] deciding which cases are taken and which aren't," said Watson. That means that about 90% of cases appealed to the court are "essentially decided in closed-door meetings," said Alex Wins­low, director of the consumer advocacy group Texas Watch, which supports Watson's bill. More­over, said Watson, the bill creates more transparency in a system that elects its judges, by providing voters with a more complete record on which to base their decisions. Currently, Watson said, 14 states make public such votes. "Secrecy prevents voters from keeping [tabs] on elected officials," he said. "The chief [Jef­fer­son] is calling for reforms. My bill [calls for] immediate and graphic reform."

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