Appeals Court: Patterson Looking for Escape Hatch?

Justice's departure from court would tilt the political balance

3rd Court of Appeals Judge Jan Patterson
3rd Court of Appeals Judge Jan Patterson

After four months of uncertainty over who would succeed the late Judge Scott Ozmun as Travis County's 353rd District Court judge, Gov. Rick Perry last week named his pick: Deputy First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Rose.

That brought to an end the speculation about who would be chosen, as well as the aspirations of nearly a dozen people who'd put their names in for consideration – including, it turns out, Democratic 3rd Court of Appeals Judge Jan Patterson. In two letters penned to Perry on July 23 (the two are virtually identical; the first is handwritten, the second typed), Patterson tells Perry that she'd like him to appoint her to fill Ozmun's spot. "I understand that a vacancy exists," she wrote. "By this letter, I am seeking appointment to the seat." Stating her commitment to public service, Patterson wrote that she "would be honored to serve as a trial judge on the district court. ... I believe I have the experience, integrity, temperament, character, and work ethic essential for this position."

Appeals Court: Patterson Looking for Escape Hatch?

Word that Patterson had applied for the lower-court job spread quickly, yet surprisingly quietly, through county Democratic circles: What was Patterson thinking, people wanted to know. The 3rd Court of Appeals hears civil and criminal appeals brought from 24 counties and, by virtue of being seated in the state capital, hears cases involving state agencies and allegations of public corruption brought by the Travis County District Attor­ney's Office. The power of the 3rd Court has in recent years become a lightning rod for party politics, and running for the court has become an increasingly partisan game. Currently, the court is split evenly between Republican and Democratic judges: Three are GOPers (Justices Bob Pemberton, David Puryear, and Alan Waldrop), and three are Dems (Justices Patterson and Diane Henson, and Chief Justice Woodie Jones). Tipping the balance – one way or another – is an ongoing political goal for each party. If anything, the possibility that the court could swing to the GOP is a far more likely scenario: The district has a large bloc of voters in Travis County but cannot be won without drawing voters from the more rural conservative areas in the Hill Country and from the white suburbanites to the north in Williamson County.

Thus, news that Patterson was willing to leave her post on the 3rd Court a year early and toss her name into Perry's pot to replace Ozmun was a shock to many. Had Perry chosen Patterson, he would then have had a chance to place a Republican on the 3rd Court, giving that person the ability to run as a quasi-incumbent next year. That, sources said, would be as good as ceding the seat to the GOP.

(Under the handshake agreement in the Texas Senate, Austin's Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson would have been advised of Perry's choice and would have a chance to reject any potential appointment – which it seems he would likely have done had Patterson's name been brought to him. But that's not a codified practice, and, theoretically, Perry could choose to ignore it and move forward with whatever decision he wanted to make. At press time, Perry's office had not responded to the question of whether Patterson's name had been brought to Watson for serious consideration – in fact, a Perry spokesman replied that the Chronicle would have to submit an open records request for that information; Watson declined to comment.)

Notably, Patterson had already planned to retire from her seat on the appeals court and has already filed to run for the county's 201st District Court – a race that, to date, she has all to herself. That means, for all intents and purposes, Patterson would be able to step down from the appeals court and onto the Travis County bench without even having to run much of a race at all. (Whether she will, at some point, draw a challenger for the 201st race remains to be seen.) So, why did Patterson instead seek appointment to the 353rd? According to Patterson, she didn't: "They actually approached me," she said. Indeed, Patterson says Perry's office came knocking several times, inquiring as to whether she would consider submitting her name for consideration. She declined the first few times but ultimately agreed to apply – that's why she wrote the letters, she said, because Perry's office asked her to do so. She thought about it, she said, and a "short cut" to election didn't sound so bad. Ultimately, she says she's happy she didn't get the job. But she won't say whether her failure to get it had anything to do with whether or not Watson would agree to support her appointment: "I don't want to get into the content of my conversations with people," she said. "And I don't think they should get into those conversations either."

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Rick Perry, Jan Patterson, 353rd District Court, Elections, Election 2010, Kirk Watson

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