Baker Institute expert: Texas Legislature has options to reform the selection of judges

During the state’s 85th legislative session, which convened Jan. 10 and adjourns May 29, Texas legislators once again have the opportunity to enact reforms to the process by which the state selects its judges, according to an expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: University

Texas is one of only two states that elects and re-elects its judges in partisan elections in combination with a straight-ticket voting option. The result is a powerful tendency for party-line voting and high-profile executive races to drive vote choices in down-ballot judicial races, resulting in limited variance in the vote shares received by judicial candidates and partisan sweeps at the state, appeals court district and county levels, said Mark Jones, fellow in political science at the Baker Institute.

Jones’ new report, “The Selection of Judges in Texas: Analysis of the Current System and of the Principal Reform Options,” provides an overview of four leading reform options and examines both their advantages and disadvantages.

“At present, an overwhelming majority of Texas judges are elected based not on their legal qualifications and judicial philosophy, or even on their own campaign efforts, but rather on the performance of their party (in the straight-ticket vote) and of their party’s top-tier candidates (for example, presidential or gubernatorial) within the jurisdiction where their race is being contested,” said Jones, who is also the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, professor of political science and fellow at Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Every recent biennial regular legislative session in Texas has featured multiple proposals to significantly modify the methods by which judges are selected in Texas, Jones said. However, none of these bills ever reached the governor’s desk, with most never even making it out of committee. Some of these proposals involved constitutional amendment, while others required only the passage of a statutory reform.

The four reforms Jones discusses range from dramatic changes to the status quo to relatively modest changes to the status quo.

The most extreme reform utilizes a judicial nominating commission to draft a slate of candidates from which the governor appoints a judge, with the governor endowed with the power of reappointment. The second reform employs an identical initial appointment method via a judicial nominating commission, but reappointment is determined by a retention election whereby voters are given the option to retain or remove a judge. The third reform maintains the popular election of judges, but removes the partisan label for judicial candidates along with the direct role of the parties (for example, party primaries) in the candidate-selection process. The fourth reform is identical to the current selection method employed in Texas, with the exception that the straight-ticket option does not apply to judicial elections and the ballot is redesigned to ameliorate the effect of this reform on ballot roll-off (for example, undervoting).

“During the 85th legislative session, Texas legislators once again have the opportunity to enact reforms to the process by which the state selects its judges, with the power, for instance, to adopt any of the four above-mentioned methods, either for all judicial contests or for only a select few (for example, trial court judges),” Jones wrote.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.