Texas Has The Highest Number of Judicial Vacancies – And That’s Likely to Change Under Trump

Our daily roundup of Texas headlines.

By Becky FogelDecember 22, 2016 4:21 pm

The Standard’s news roundup gives you a quick hit of interesting, sometimes irreverent, and breaking news stories from all over the state.

Texas is wrapping up 2016 with the highest number of federal judicial vacancies in the country. But after the outcome of the presidential election it might not be like this for long. Houston Public Media’s Al Ortiz has more:

Currently, Texas has vacancies for 11 district courts and two federal appellate courts.

The process to fill these vacancies starts with presidential nominations and ends with confirmations by the United States Senate.

Even though the process begins with nominations from the president, senators can make recommendations.

In that context and given that the president-elect, Donald Trump, and the two senators who represent Texas, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, are all Republicans –along with the fact the Republican Party has the majority in the Senate– Robert Carp, a political science professor with the University of Houston, thinks the vacancies should be filled faster.

“They may say: ‘Well, OK, Trumps gets to pick, you know, one-third of them and one-third can be nominated by Cruz and one third by Cornyn’. I don’t know how they will divvy it up but, in terms of filling vacancies, I would be astounded if these vacancies are not filled very, very promptly,” Carp says.

Lee Rosenthal, a U.S. District Court Judge and Chief Judge of the Southern District of Texas, thinks the impact of the vacancies is clear.

“It takes us longer to resolve the cases that we do have, and that is a very large and acute pressing negative for the litigants whose cases are at stake,” Rosenthal notes.

Carp says delays typically benefit litigants with a lot of money to spend in court proceedings and hurt individuals who can’t afford long and expensive trials.

And speaking of judges – Federal Judge Sam Sparks is letting a lawsuit against Gov, Greg Abbott move ahead. The group suing him: The Freedom From Religion Foundation.

This all started last year when the group applied for permission to install an exhibit at the Capitol they called the “Bill of Rights Nativity and Winter Solstice Display”. Brandi Grissom of the Dallas Morning News has been following the story:

“Basically what it is, is a nativity scene which has a Bill of Rights instead of a baby Jesus in it, and the Founding Fathers are sort of surrounding the baby Jesus in the manger and they appear to be worshipping the piece of paper that has the Bill of Rights on it,” Grissom says. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s display was meant to be a counter exhibit to a typical nativity scene on the capitol grounds. The organization advocates for the separation of church and state.

“But when Gov. Abbott found out about this display at the Capitol last year, he was offended by it, and wrote a letter to the State Preservation Board which is the organization that approves these kinds of displays at the Capitol,” she says. “And he told them he wanted that display removed immediately – he said it was tasteless and designed to belittle and offend.”

After it was removed, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued – saying the governor and preservation board were discriminating against them based on their point of view, violating their first amendment rights.

Both Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are confident they’ll beat the lawsuit.

Texas and states like Louisiana and Oklahoma are seeing a spike in the number of abandoned oil wells after a recent oil market crash.

Normally, when a well is finished the operators plug them which reduces threats to the environment. But as the Texas Tribune reports – the number of abandoned wells surged past 10,000 in fiscal year 2016. That’s the most since 2007.