Why Do We Elect Judges In Texas?

From the local bench, all the way to the Supreme Court, most judges in the Lone Star State must stand for election.

By Bonnie PetrieOctober 23, 2018 2:20 pm, , , , ,

The Texas Standard and public radio stations across the state have been working together to help you make sense of the midterms through our Texas Decides project, inviting listeners to send in their questions.

Our question-asker is Patsy Culver, a CPA and an artist in Alpine, Texas.

“My question is: Texas is fairly unique in that we elect our judges. I have not found anywhere that I can find the positions of the judges that are running this year.”

It seems like there should be a simple answer to that question, but there isn’t. There are more than 3,000 elected judges in the state. Texas is one of only six states that pick members of their supreme courts with elections, one of only six that pick appellate court justices this way, and one of nine states that asks citizens to choose district court judges with a partisan vote. Why do we do this?
St. Mary’s School of Law Professor Wayne Scott says history is behind it.

“This system was set up before the Civil War and then after the Civil War. It has not been modified seriously since 1891, so to an extent we’re back in horse and buggy days,” Scott says.

Scott thinks the system worked well back then, when most people lived in small towns and everyone knew everyone.

“Then when you voted for a judge you knew who you were voting for and what you were getting.” Scott says. “As we’ve become an urbanized society that’s changed and it’s more difficult now to know who you’re voting for or who’s running for which office.”

Some judges find the election process daunting, as well. Judge Sandee Marion, chief justice of the of the fourth court of appeals in San Antonio, is among them. She’s been a judge for 26 years, and she’s had to run for office several times.

“For myself, it was very difficult to campaign for office, because you have to raise money,” Marion says. “You have to ask people for money. You have to tout yourself. And I remember being very uncomfortable doing those things.”

You also have to pick a party. Marion ran as a Republican, but stressed the job is non-partisan. “Once you get elected, you really have to take that political hat off. And it’s not always easy for everyone to do,” Marion says.

When Judge Marion runs, she knows it’s difficult for voters to learn about her. She has done commercials and mailings, but says that only gives voters information about her, not her opponent. She also urges voters not to be swayed by yard signs.

“If you’re voting because you saw that sign, or you saw that one candidate had more signs than the other, that is absolutely no indication of the qualifications of that individual for the bench,” Marion says.

For years, our questioner, Patsy, has been getting information on candidates for judge through the grapevine. She’d ask lawyer friends who they’d recommend and why. Both Professor Scott and Judge Marion think that’s a good place to start. However, there is no easy way to find out about your candidates for judge. You have to do the work. Judge Marion hopes you will.

“It’s such an important role that the judiciary plays in our system and I just hope that voters will take the time to learn about them. Educating yourself is the most important thing you can do to ensure we have a strong judicial system,” Marion says.