Why judges run for election with party affiliation in Texas

Why judges run for election with party affiliation in Texas

Why judges run for election with party affiliation in Texas
November 07
01:41 2018

Though judges are supposed to give their unbiased opinions of cases based on their interpretation of the constitution, they are required to run under a political party in Texas, leaving many to wonder why this happens.

Answering this question requires an understanding of judicial history and our current definition of the word “independent.”

The reasoning for our state’s partisan elections for judges dates back to the early 1800s, when only state governors appointed judges to their state’s courts. Those appointees could only gain office with approval of their state legislatures, similar to how the U.S. Senate approves Supreme Court Justices from presidential nominees.

Although some, like Alexander Hamilton, supported this appointment-approval system, Mississippi did away with the process entirely in 1832 in favor of electing judges in the same way Texans do today. Several states imitated Mississippi’s decision, including Texas, which declared in 1866 that all judges should be elected by the public.

According to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit and nonpartisan political encyclopedia, states reformed their judicial appointment processes partially because of shifts in political culture. The election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828 signified a growing desire for popular representation in national politics.

Some voters around that time were concerned appointed judges were not independent of other areas of government or held accountable enough to their constituents, prompting a movement for judicial change.

UNT political science professor Eddie Meaders believes the decision was made to give the people more power.

“Partisan election of judges goes back as far as Jacksonsonian Democracy in the 1830’s,” Meaders said in an email. “Folks wanted judges accountable to the electorate. [They] did not like the idea of elites (governors, legislators) filling important positions such as judges. Regular folks wanted the ability to choose their governmental officials via the ballot.”

States have tinkered with judicial elections since then by reverting back to government appointments and approvals or by doing away with the partisan aspect of elections. Mississippi, the originator of the judicial election in the U.S., abolished their own election system in 1868 only to adopt it again in 1914. Later on in 1994, the Mississippi legislature made those elections nonpartisan.

Texas has maintained popular elections for all judges since 1876, joining a list of around 20 other states that still include partisan elections for at least some lower-level courts.

Instead of keeping the state’s status quo, some have called for repealing the process.

In 2011, former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace Jefferson brought this up in a speech delivered to the Texas Legislature, claiming party politics have caused judges to lose their positions on the bench due to party affiliation.

Two years prior, in 2009, Jefferson claimed that monetary interests in political campaigns for judges interfere with courtroom decisions.

“I believe political affiliations of judges and justices should have very little baring on their rulings. It is far more informative to understand what their judicial philosophy is,” political science sophomore Yolian Ogbu said. “The actual divide really isn’t based on political party but on interpretation. I think that should be required rather than having to put their party affiliation.”

Others have dismissed the role of party politics in the courts, like Steven Kirkland, judge for the 334th Texas District Court and current Texas Supreme Court candidate.

Kirkland said party politics take the backseat in some judicial elections.

“A judge’s temperament and how they treat people in the courtroom is way more important than partisan leanings,” Kirkland said. “[Judges] look at things differently because of their backgrounds and perspectives, not because of their parties.”

Because of the high-profile nature of some judicial races, Kirkland said voters should still be attentive to partisan leanings, even if learning about every judicial candidate is difficult.

“As you go up the ladder, policy and partisan affiliation becomes more important,” Kirkland said. “If [voters] take their jobs seriously, they can elect great judges, but if they don’t, things can get very bad. You have to have an engaged and informed citizenry.”

Featured Image: A campaign sign for Forrest Beadle. He was a candidate County judge in Criminal Court No. 3. Jacob Ostermann

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Carter Mize

Carter Mize

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