Chief Justice Rips Election System

By Bruce Hight
American-Statesman Staff
Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Texas' system of electing judges remains the biggest problem facing the state's judiciary, Chief Justice Tom Phillips of the Texas Supreme Court said Tuesday in his biennial State of the Judiciary address.

"Judicial selection remains the number one impediment to the Texas judiciary's ability to deliver fair and equal justice to all and to have full public confidence of our citizens," Phillips said.

He spoke to a joint meeting of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, the House Civil Practices Committee and the House Committee on Judicial Affairs.

In his formal text, from which Phillips often deviated, the chief justice used more pointed language, saying the current partisan election system "has long outlived its usefulness and now dangerously impedes public respect for the administration of justice."

The election system has been criticized because judicial candidates must raise campaign cash from the lawyers and business interests most likely to appear in their courts if elected. Though legal, the practice has raised questions of conflict of interest.

The election of judges also has been criticized in heavily urban areas, where voters, in electing numerous judges, may rely on party affiliation, regardless of qualifications or experience.

Phillips, a Republican, noted that last year, for the first time, voters in Central and Southeast Texas elected Republicans to seats on state courts of appeals in Austin and Beaumont.

Phillips acknowledged that he has raised the same criticism before without many results. And instead of pushing hard once again for a "merit selection" system used in other states, he suggested less drastic improvements, such as:

  • Public funding of judicial elections. Legislation already has been introduced to use attorney occupation tax money for major candidates for the state's two highest courts, the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.
  • Bar unopposed judicial candidates from raising campaign contributions after the filing deadline. Legislation has been introduced.
  • Publish and distribute voter information guides for judicial elections.
  • Allow judicial candidates to file for the nomination of more than one party.
  • Discourage frivolous campaigns for judgeships by requiring candidates to file petitions signed by a certain number of voters.

Phillips, however, said nothing about a new controversy involving the Supreme Court, which has been criticized for allowing its law clerks, recent top law school graduates who spend a year or so working for a justice, to collect big bonuses from the law firms that plan to hire them later. Critics have said that could give those firms and their clients an advantage when their cases go to the court.

Phillips should have urged the lawmakers to approve higher pay for the court's law clerks, said Cris Feldman, a spokesman for Texans for Public Justice, a group that studies the impact of campaign contributions and spending.

Feldman also said Phillips should push the judiciary for a prohibition on judges hearing cases involving their campaign contributors -- a step that would not require legislative approval.

You may contact Bruce Hight at or 445-3977.