For months, Democrats Mark Watson and Mike Snipes have been running 2020 campaigns for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 6. They’ve raised money, filed official paperwork, gathered signatures, traveled to far corners of the state, devoured East Texas delicacies, created Facebook pages, won endorsements, launched websites and given interviews with journalists.
There’s just one problem: There is probably not going to be an election.
The current occupant of that seat, Republican Judge Michael Keasler, is 77, and according to the state’s mandatory retirement law for judges, he must finish his decades of service on the state’s highest criminal court by the end of next year at the latest. State law permits him to finish four years of the six-year term he was elected to in 2016.
According to the Texas Constitution, Keasler’s seat will become vacant at the end of next December, and Gov. Greg Abbott is empowered to fill judicial vacancies. But the little-known and rarely relevant law seems to have led to some confusion: Would Keasler’s seat be filled in 2021 by the governor, or in 2020 by the voters?
If the Democrats were confused, they certainly weren’t the only ones.
In August, when an official from the state Democratic Party emailed state elections administrators to ask whether there would be a race, a lawyer for the secretary of state’s office reported that there would.
“I figured it out,” wrote Christina Adkins in an Aug. 15 email obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Judge Keasler is subject to mandatory retirement so his position is on the ballot in 2020.”
The race was included on the state’s list of “Offices up for Election in 2020” posted earlier this year, and remained there as recently as the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 6. Later that day, a Texas Tribune journalist emailed the agency to ask whether the seat would be up in 2020. As of Thursday, it was no longer listed on the state’s website.
A spokesman for the agency said on Friday that “there is no vacancy until December 31, 2020, and the office is not already on the ballot.”
In the last few months, Watson and Snipes have trekked across the state, recruiting early support for their bids and preparing to compete in a March primary election. Snipes, a veteran and former federal and state prosecutor who led the case against Roy Oliver, a former Dallas police officer who was convicted of murder for shooting an unarmed 15-year-old, said he was motivated to run out of an urge to serve the country that has given him so much.
“It may sound corny but it’s true,” he said in an interview last month.
Watson, a criminal attorney with proud pro bono credentials who ran unsuccessfully for a district judge position in Dallas last year, has been traveling across the state for months.
Snipes had filed required paperwork to appoint a campaign treasurer as far back as June. In July, both filed the required campaign finance reports with the Texas Ethics Commission. Snipes reported having $400 cash on hand, while Watson had none. But fundraising efforts have continued in the months since the last state-mandated reporting deadline.
Their fates depend on the whims of the septuagenarian judge whose place they are attempting to compete for. If Keasler retires before the filing deadline on Dec. 9 of this year, for example, candidates from both parties could file to replace him. But Keasler, who has been on the bench since 1999, said in an interview this week he’s not leaving a day before he has to.
“Geezer amendment” aside, Keasler said, chuckling, “I’m not planning on leaving until the end of 2020.”
If that plan holds, there will be no race to replace him — which seems to have been news both to the two men competing for his seat, and to the state’s election authorities.
“I wouldn’t be raising money and doing all this stuff if I didn’t think that,” Snipes said Thursday to a journalist who brought the issue to his attention. “My poor old heart.”
“I ran for this bench thinking it was open. The Secretary of State website showed that it was open. I was surprised to learn that I was wrong about that,” Snipes said Friday. He added that he would mull a run for the court in 2022.
Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said Friday that “it is bizarre that the Secretary of State’s office had publicly informed Texans and candidates across the state that an office was up for election in 2020 and now suddenly thinks otherwise.”
“The people of Texas are owed an explanation,” he said. “Democratic candidates have been campaigning and speaking to voters."
Democrats point to the changing information on the state’s official website as suspect. (The page says that it is a “preliminary list that is subject to change as we are notified about vacancies and newly-created offices.”) The same page includes at least one other error regarding the 2020 ballot: It does not include the race for Texas Supreme Court Place 6, which Justice Jane Bland, appointed in August by the governor, must win to keep her seat. No one disputes that that seat is up for election next year.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, sister to the Texas Supreme Court, is the state’s highest authority for criminal matters, ruling on death penalty cases among a host of other matters. All nine members of the high court have been Republicans since the mid-1990s.
Watson said Friday that the news was “pretty disappointing, but not terrible.”
“I traveled from East Texas to El Paso,” he recalled. “I ate a lot of fried catfish, Mexican food and chicken-fried steak. I had a great time and met some of the best people ever.”
He would not say whether he is considering a campaign for a different race. Three seats on the high court are (indisputably) up for election in 2020, but other Democrats have already lined up to challenge the Republican incumbents. The filing deadline is a month away.
“Democrats are welcome to try to get on the ballot, but they’re not going to be on the ballot,” Keasler said. Republicans neither: “They just can’t do it.”
“The only way that there could be — there could be a race if I died in the early part of next year,” said Keasler.
In that case, he said, the governor would appoint his replacement, who would have to run in November.
“They’re welcome to throw some money at their respective political parties for a filing fee,” Keasler said, chuckling. But that won’t get them any closer to the ballot unless he changes his mind.
“Or get transported away to the pearly gates,” he pointed out.