TEXAS VIEW: Judicial selection process needs long, serious lookTHE POINT: It is virtually impossible to remove politics from judicial selection, but many agree Texas has room to improve.

Wading into approximately 150 years of Texas tradition is never easy and often unwise, but the state is long overdue for a thoughtful conversation regarding the selection and election of judges. What troubles many is how judges run for election or reelection as a member of a party while pursuing a job that calls for complete objectivity.
It puts those seeking office in an awkward situation of sometimes soliciting campaign contributions from lawyers and firms that one day might try a case before their court. This can create a perception that partisan politics could color an impartial process. Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) recently took on this thorny issue in filing House Bill 4504.
His proposal calls for the creation of an 11-member advisory board that would rate gubernatorial nominees for local and statewide judges as highly qualified, qualified or unqualified. Then, once approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate, judges would run every four years in nonpartisan retention elections, allowing voters to decide if they will remain in office, according to our story this week.
Landgraf’s proposal was met with the kind of response one might expect in this day and age — highly vocal support and equally intense opposition. Those in favor say the system needs a serious look. Opponents say the voting public should not be cut out of any aspect of the process. There is also a political aspect to this as Democrats surmise Republicans are responding legislatively to the results of last fall’s general election that saw many GOP judges bounced from their jobs.
Imagine that. Politics in a political process. Regardless, Landgraf’s bill is a good place to begin a dialogue that should look for ways to remove party affiliations and keep voters engaged. Truth be told, all sides say it is virtually impossible to remove politics from judicial selection, but many agree the state has room to improve.
“If you want judges who rule in favor of Republicans or Democrats, in favor of the left or the right, in favor of the establishment or outsiders, in favor of the rich or the poor, then we should keep partisan elections,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a Republican, said to the Judiciary Civil Jurisprudence Committee as reported in our story. “…the powerful will win that struggle.”
According to our story, other states have taken on this issue by adopting an appointment process based on a candidate’s qualifications, followed by retention elections giving voters a say. The approach varies from state to state with each process having its own imperfections.
“The fact that any system has holes in it … should not be a future excuse to do nothing,” former chief justice Tom Phillips said in our story. He added one solution might be to allow judges to run without being identified by party affiliation. “Judges should not be labeled,” he said. “It’s not a partisan job.”
Realistically, there is likely not enough time left in the session to get any real traction. Landgraf’s bill may be a good starting point, but it will need tweaking and committee approval before seeing light of day in the House. That said, two bills that have passed committee muster in both houses (HB 3601 and SB 1728) would create a committee to study judicial selection and recommend changes for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in 2021, our story pointed out.
That sounds like a great place to start because this issue is too important to rush through and important enough to keep on the radar.