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Will Texas Do Better?

Great doomed ideas

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Dec. 7, 2012

Here are three commonsense measures (the first two authored by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, and the third by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston) that would address the problem of politics infecting the judiciary. Don't expect any of them to become law.

Unitary Judiciary: HB 134, a perennial Hail Mary, would eliminate altogether the Court of Criminal Appeals and fold the work of the state's highest criminal venue into the Texas Supreme Court, which currently hears civil matters and criminal matters involving juveniles. There's no persuasive reason to have a bifurcated system – the U.S. has gotten along quite well with only one Supreme Court – and it would save money to collapse the two benches. Bet on this one to stall early.

Money Talks: HB 129 would require CCA and Supreme Court judges to recuse themselves from cases when they've received campaign contributions from a party to or attorney for the matter under consideration. Sounds utterly sensible – but elected judges cannot do without such contributions, especially from major law firms that regularly appear before them. If this one were to pass, there would likely be no appeals courts left. Consider this one dead on arrival.

Hold That Lever: SB 103 attacks the problem more modestly, by eliminating the option of straight-ticket voting in judicial races. Because court races are down-ballot contests, many voters ignore them or vote strictly by party, often returning to the bench, ad nauseam, judges of questionable credibility or skill. Because the bill is being proposed by a conservative GOP senator, it might garner broader bipartisan support and traction – but with the parties as polarized and institutionalized as they are, it remains a long shot.

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