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Some Problems With Judicial Elections

Yesterday was the start of early voting in Texas. While the presidential campaign gets all the hype, three Texas Supreme Court justices are up for re-election, and the election highlights some of the problems with judicial elections.

The first is campaign contributions. Earlier this month, the non-profit Texans for Public Justice issued a report on “courtroom contributions” to Supreme Court candidates. The report had startling findings. The three incumbents have raised $1.6 million between them from January 2007 and June 2008. Sixty-five percent of those donations came from parties, lawyers or other people that had cases in front of the court. Justice Dale Wainwright had a whopping 71 percent of his contributions came from these “courtroom contributors.”

Unfortunately, the Democratic challengers were no better. During the same time period surveyed, the three Democratic challengers collected $722,167, with 69 percent of that money from lawyers and litigants who had recent business before the Supreme Court.

The stock response is that attorneys with business before the state’s various courts are the ones that know the judges, are interested in the outcome, and have an incentive to donate. Maybe so, but something appears wrong with a system where the bulk of the contributions come from people business before the state’s courts.

A second problem is that it’s almost impossible to be an informed voter on issues. I can’t tell you the number of emails I receive asking for recommendations on judicial elections. I’m informed on the judicial elections that affect my practice, but even as a lawyer, I don’t have a clue about some of the judges running for the various criminal courts. If politically active lawyers don’t know, how is the general public supposed to know about judges?

I don’t really have a better suggestion for a better system at this point, but I definitely think it’s worth looking into.

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