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Cornyn: Pot Meet Kettle (Or How Should Texas Select Judges)

“A judge’s job is to apply the law and, in the absence of a jury, to decide the facts of the case. This job description should not include advancing a personal or partisan agenda from the bench. When a judge brings a personal agenda or partisan commitments to the bench, the rule of law suffers, and invariably public confidence in our system of justice is undermined.”

That’s a great quote; one that you might expect from a constitutional law scholar or something. But you wouldn’t expect it from a former judge who was a prime example of putting a partisan agenda before the law. And yet, that’s exactly what Senator John Cornyn did this week in a commentary he wrote for Texas Lawyer magazine. (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, this is the same guy that wants to use Texas, the state with the highest rate of uninsured in the country, as a model for the nation on healthcare.)

Perhaps forgetting (or hoping to ignore) his record as a judge, Cornyn addresses judicial selection, a hot topic in Texas. Texas is one of the few states that allows election of judges by political party, and some are questioning whether that should be changed. And the criticism comes from both sides. On the consumer side, groups such as Texas Watch have been calling for reform for years, and now, after Democrats swept through the courts in Dallas County and appear to be heading the same way in Harris County, Republicans are jumping on the bandwagon too. In his “State of the Judiciary” speech, Judge Wallace Jefferson spent a lot of time talking about the problems with partisan elections, even though some say Jefferson’s Texas Supreme Court exemplifies the biggest problems with the judiciary.

While many of us agree that partisan elections are bad, there is a lot of disagreement over the best alternative. Right now, the darling of the politicos is the prospect of merit selection where the governor appoints a judge and then the judge faces retention elections later.

I say, “no thanks.” We don’t need judges beholden to the governor or any other branch of the government. Incumbents already win an extraordinary high percentage of the time. We don’t need a governor (of any party) picking judges that are hard to oust.

What do I think we should do? I suggest non-partisan elections. Get the “R” and the “D” off the ballot, and let people make decisions based on merit. I’ll talk about the reasons why I like this over the next few days.

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