Tuesday, October 25, 2016

From Grits for Breakfast: Indulging despair over degraded state of TX high criminal court elections

Grits comments on an article I linked to last week where candidates to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals discussed alternative - non criminal - ways to handle drug and mental health cases.

He;s critical of the superficiality of the article - as well as the fact that these judges are elected - which makes them inherently political, despite what we expect from the courts.

- Click here for the article.


It's hard to blame reporter Jonathan Silver too much. Nobody really covers the CCA as a beat anymore in the Austin press corps. So a layperson finds it difficult to nuance questions in such a way that the answers both give readers a sense of how the candidates would behave as judges but don't require them to opine on issues on which they'll later have to rule. It's a tricky line to walk. But instead of walking it, Silver's story retreated from it, asking questions which were either irrelevant to the court or too vague to matter.
It's not just reporters who don't know much about the court. Even the candidates don't really know what they're getting into. Judge Keel had a comment she thought was critical of Meyers, declaring "judges should not advocate for policy changes." I thought that was cute. It's the sort of thing trial judges think until they get on the court and discover how political the appellate process really is. Wait till she starts to show up at conference and finds that the Government Always Wins faction near constantly wants to rewrite the statutes to reach a desired outcome instead of interpret them on their face. The open question is whether Keel will join them and give Judge Keller and Co. a working majority, and this story provides nary a clue.

Regardless of the article's shortcomings, this is perhaps the most in-depth coverage of the CCA election we've seen beyond the various newspaper endorsements. Not that it matters. Voters don't know anything about these races and don't care. The odds are overwhelming that all the Republicans win.
The only outlier is the Donald Trump factor: If he continues to melt down and Republicans stay home in sufficient numbers to spur a Hillary Clinton victory in Texas, all the Ds in this race likely get elected. (What a twist it would be if Larry Meyers was the incumbent reelected instead of Mike Keasler!) But CCA elections aren't about who's the best judge or the issues facing the court. The primary season proved that. Court of Criminal Appeals races are either unassailable bastions for GOP incumbents or complete free-for-alls in which the unqualified and qualified are mixed together in a hat and then seemingly chosen at random by a blindfolded chimp.
This is fundamentally why Grits favors merging the CCA with the Texas Supreme Court. Electing judges is a bad idea, but it's even worse when candidates have no money to communicate with voters and the results are effectively random. The Texas CCA represents basically the worst-case scenario for electing instead of appointing judges. So Grits' support for a merger is more of a backup position. I'd rather not elect them at all, but if we must, combining Texas' high courts might at least improve this prostrated process.


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