Statewide judicial contests may be the most important races voters have never heard of. Well, of course they have heard of them, they just haven't paid much attention.
That's too bad, because the people we elect to our courts hold a lot of power. Fortunately, for the most part in recent years, Texans have been well-served by the people we elect, but that hasn't always been the case. A quarter century ago, the Supreme Court of Texas was the laughing stock of the country, featured on 60 Minutes for its often bizarre rulings.
Thankfully things are much better now.
Before we go any further, we need a brief primer on the state's court system.
At the most basic level are justices of the peace courts which hear minor crimes and suits, county courts at law and constitutional county courts, which handle misdemeanors and civil suits involving relatively small amounts of money. District courts handle felonies (and some misdemeanors) and high-dollar civil suits. The judges of these courts live in our community, shop in the same grocery stores, go to the same churches as the rest of us. In other words, we know them.
Cases appealed from district court -- with one major exception -- go to one of the states 14 Courts of Appeals, which hear both criminal and civil matters. Brazos County is served by the three-member 10th Court of Appeals in Waco.
Cases appealed from the intermediate appellate courts go to one of two top courts. Criminal matters go to the nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, while civil and juvenile cases go to the Supreme Court of Texas, which also has nine justices. The top two courts are discretionary courts, which means they only hear the cases the judges choose to accept.
The only exception is for death-penalty cases, which are appealed automatically to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which must hear them.
The intermediate courts of appeal justices are elected only by the voters in the district they serve. Judges on the top two courts are elected statewide. Most Texans insist they want to elect their judges, even though most voters cannot correctly name who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the Chief Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, let alone any of the other eight members of each court.
Texans face three Supreme Court races between Democrats and Republicans, and one race for the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Here are The Eagle's recommendations in those races:
Nathan Hecht, Republican, vs. William Moody, Democrat -- In recent years, Texas has been blessed with outstanding chief justices of the Supreme Court of Texas. Tom Phillips and Wallace Jefferson worked hard and successfully to restore the good name of the court. They have been followed by Chief Justice Hecht, who has continued the efforts.
Moody was appointed to a district court bench in El Paso in 1986 by Gov. Mark White. He has run unopposed seven times since then. In 2002 and again in 2006, he ran for the Supreme Court and lost both times. Now he is seeking to be chief justice because he said Texans don't believe they can get a fair shake in civil courts.
Hecht has been a judge for 33 years, including the past 26 on the Supreme Court, where he is the longest-sitting justice. He is a smart, engaging judge who eagerly discusses the court and its operations. He has worked to bring more modern technology into the court. He gave the Editorial Board the best answer we have heard to complaints about the large amount of money judicial candidates receive from big law firms in Houston and Dallas:
"It is wrong to make us run for election and then complain about the money we have to raise."
He noted the court is as current in clearing cases as it ever has been.
Simply put, Hecht is an outstanding chief justice.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Nathan Hecht for re-election as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.
Jeff Brown, Republican, vs. Lawrence Edward Meyers, Democrat -- This is one of the strangest Supreme Court races in a long time. Meyers has spent 22 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- as a Republican. Now, he has become a Democrat and is running for the state's top civil court. He also has filed suit in state court challenging the relatively new voter ID law as a violation of the Texas Constitution. Other recent challenges have been based on the U.S. Constitution and have been put on hold until after the election.
While almost all of Meyer's experience is in criminal matters, Brown's is mostly in civil law. He served as a civil district court judge and then a justice on Houston's 14th Court of Appeals. Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the Supreme Court a little more than a year ago, replacing Nathan Hecht, who had been appointed to replace Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. It is a return to a court where he served as a briefing attorney when he was fresh out of law school.
Meyers has been one of the bright spots on a distressingly out-of-touch Court of Criminal Appeals and we have yet to understand why he would seek to move to the Supreme Court. He still has two years left on his Court of Criminal Appeals term so, win or lose, he will remain an appellate judge.
In his brief time on the Supreme Court, Brown has proved to be a fine justice.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Jeff Brown for election to a full term on the Supreme Court of Texas.
Jeff Boyd, Republican, vs. Gina Benavides, Democrat -- Like Brown, Boyd was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Perry. He has a long career of service, as a clerk for 5th Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley, deputy attorney general for civil litigation under then-Attorney General John Cornyn, general counsel for the governor's office and, finally, chief of staff to the governor.
Benavides is serving her second term on the 13th Court of Appeals in South Texas. She was named 2007 Latina Judge of the Year by the National Hispanic Bar Association. She has been appointed twice by the Supreme Court to the Texas Access for Justice Commission.
Benavides, however, doesn't make the case she would be a better justice than Boyd.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Jeff Boyd to election to his own term on the Supreme Court of Texas.
Court of Criminal Appeals
Bert Richardson, Republican, vs. John Granberg, Democrat -- If you had to create a good composite judge for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Richardson just might be it, winning approval for both Republicans and Democrats.
He currently is the senior district judge overseeing the two indictments against Gov. Rick Perry and we have every confidence that he will do an outstanding job.
Richardson served in the Bexar County District Attorney's Office and then the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Antonio.
Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to a district bench in 1999 and he served until a Democratic sweep cost him his re-election in 2008.
Since then, Richardson has been a visiting judge through much of Central Texas.
He told the editorial Board that he never has been reversed in a criminal case.
Granberg is an El Paso attorney with no judicial experience, which isn't a requirement for either of the state's top two courts.
The two are vying for the position being vacated by Judge Tom Price, who has served the people of Texas well on the high court.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Bert Richardson to Place 3 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.