Republicans have several contested races for the state's top two courts on the March 1 Brazos County ballot.
Texans like to elect their judges, even though they don't know the incumbents, the challengers or the courts they seek. Too often, judges are selected in the November elections simply because they run, now, as Republicans or, in the past, as Democrats. It is a poor way to select judges, but appointive systems have as many faults.
Two things would make the selection of judges better: doing away with straight-party voting in the general election and, well, voters who bother to be informed about the candidates for whom they vote. Neither is likely to happen anytime soon.
Let's take a brief look at the state judicial structure. At the local level, criminal and civil cases are tried in district courts or county courts-at-law. In Brazos County, our three district and two at-law courts are general jurisdiction, hearing both civil and criminal matters. In larger cities, district courts frequently specialize in criminal, civil or family matters.
With the exception of death-penalty verdicts, decisions at the local level may be appealed to one of the state's 14 intermediate courts of appeal. In Brazos County, cases that are appealed go to the three member 10th Court of Appeals in Waco. The courts of appeal have to accept every case appealed to them, criminal or civil.
From those courts, cases may be appealed to one of the state's two supreme courts. The nine-member Supreme Court of Texas handles only civil and juvenile matters. The other top court, the nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, hears criminal cases appealed from the intermediate courts.
Both the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court are discretionary courts, choosing which cases to accept - with one major exception. All death-penalty cases are automatically appealed from the district court level straight to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
At present, all nine Supreme Court justices, as they are called, and eight of the nine Court of Criminal Appeals judges, as they are called, are Republicans. The lone Democrat on the court is Judge Lawrence Meyers, a fine jurist who has been elected to the top court several times as a Republican. Last year, though, he switched to the Democratic Party to run for a place on the Supreme Court. He lost and now is finishing his six-year term on the Court of Criminal Appeals and is running for re-election as a Democrat.
No other Democrats are running for the top two courts.
Here is a look at the contested judicial races on the Republican Primary ballot in Brazos County:
Supreme Court of Texas
Justice Debra Lehrmann vs. Justice Michael Massengale -- Lehrmann was judge of the 360th District Court when, in mid 2010, Gov. Rick Perry appointed her to fill out the remaining six months of Justice Harriet O'Neill's term when O'Neill stepped down. Lehrmann was elected to a full six-year term in November 2010.
Lehrmann's background before taking the Tarrant County bench was primarily in family law.
Massengale clerked in Houston for a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for two years and then joined the prestigious firm of Baker, Botts, eventually becoming a partner. Perhaps his biggest case was representing the directors of Pennzoil in a suit filed by the company's shareholders. After a three-week trial, he won and the shareholders received nothing.
Six and half years ago, Gov. Perry named him to a vacancy on the 1st Court of Appeals, one of two appellate courts located in Houston. He has been elected to that post twice since then.
Massengale is critical of Lehrmann, noting she had no appellate experience before being named to the Supreme Court, although, of course, she has gained plenty of such experience in the past five years on the court. He said she is the most frequent dissenter on the Supreme Court, often on the state's tort reform statute.
He said Lehrmann often is results-driven, deciding cases on the way she thinks the law should be rather than on the law as written.
Lehrmann did not meet with the Editorial Board. Massengale is a highly intelligent, engaging appellate justice. His criticism of Justice Lehrmann may be correct, but we expect our judges and justices to rule on the law as they understand it. Judges frequently can read the same case and apply the same facts and come up with differing opinions. That is why we have nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court and nine judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Massengale would make a fine Supreme Court justice, but doesn't make the case he would be better than Justice Lehrmann.
The Eagle recommends a vote to re-elect Justice Debra Lehrmann to Place 3 on the Supreme Court of Texas.
Judge Rick Green vs. Justice Paul Green -- Justice Paul Green was elected to the Supreme Court in 2004 and re-elected in 2010. Prior to that, he was a justice on the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio.
Rick Green is a former member of the Texas House of Representatives who was defeated after two terms. He has no judicial experience, losing to Justice Lehrmann in 2010.
Neither candidate met with The Editorial Board, but Paul Green's experience on the Supreme Court gives him a significant edge.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Justice Paul Green for re-election to the Supreme Court of Texas.
Justice Eva Guzman vs. Joe Pool -- The daughter of immigrants, Guzman was appointed by Gov. Perry in 2009 when Justice Scott Brister resigned. She was elected to a full six-year term in 2010. Prior to being appointed to the court, she was a justice on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston and, before that was a family court judge. She is the first Hispanic woman to hold all three positions.
She was named Latina Judge of the Year by the Hispanic National Bar Association and 2009 Judge of the Year by the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas.
Pool says Guzman is not a true conservative who is out-of-step with the beliefs of the majority of Texas. He described himself as a "Christian Constitutional Conservative." On his website site, he pledges to rule "in accordance with the Constitution and his conscience."
He ran for the Supreme Court in 2012 in a three-person race, coming in third.
Guzman has been an outstanding jurist in Texas for a number of years and has served all Texans well. It is Pool who is out of touch with his fellow Texans.
The Eagle recommends a vote to keep Justice Eva Guzman on the Supreme Court of Texas.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Judge Mary Lou Keel vs. Judge Chris Oldner vs. Judge Ray Wheless -- Judge Keel has served as a Houston felony court judge for 21 years and has tried 20 capital murder cases. Prior to that, she was an assistant Harris County district attorney, handling 279 criminal appeals, including five death-penalty cases. She has been board certified in criminal law since 1990.
Oldner has been board certified in criminal law for 14 years. He spent seven years as a prosecutor before serving as a Collin County court-at-law judge for three and a half years. Gov. Perry appointed him to the 416th District Court Bench in McKinney in 2003. He has run unopposed since then. He said he is the candidate in the race who has argued a death penalty case before a jury. He said he has never had a felony decision in his court reversed. "We do it right the first time."
He made the news last year when he presided over the grand jury that handed up an indictment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for securities fraud. Oldner recused himself from the case after the indictment was handed up, but Paxton's attorneys accused the judge of improprieties and said the indictment should be thrown out. A man not associated publicly with the case filed a judicial ethics complaint against Judge Oldner, and the matter is in the hands of the state's judicial ethics commission.
Oldner denies any wrongdoing, saying he has nothing to gain by Paxton's indictment. He said, "It's just another example of how dark-money special interest groups seek to bully and intimidate ethical, conservative judges who strictly follow the law."
Wheless is board certified in civil trial law and personal injury trial law, specializations that seemingly would make him more suited for the Supreme Court. He calls himself the conservative candidate in the race.
Wheless was named to a Collin County court-at-law bench in 2000 and, in 2009, was appointed to a district court bench by Gov. Perry. He has run unopposed since then.
Before being named to the bench, Wheless was active in a variety of Collin County Republican Party activities. He did not meet with the Editorial Board.
Oldner seemingly did nothing wrong in the Paxton indictment -- remember, it is Texas Attorney General Paxton who is under indictment, not the judge -- and he brings a wealth of experience to the race.
Keel, however, has experience that far surpasses Oldner's and that experience would serve Texans well on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Judge Mary Lou Keel for election to Place 2 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the Republican Primary.
The winner of that primary race will face the now-Democrat Judge Lawrence Meyers in the fall.
Judge Sid Harle vs. Steve Smith vs. Scott Walker vs. Brent Webster -- The four are vying to replace Judge Cheryl Johnson, an outstanding jurist who is retiring after 18 years on the court.
Harle is running at the urging of Judge Johnson. He has been judge of San Antonio's 226th District Court for 27 years and has run unopposed for the past 20 years. He is a former prosecutor and former defense attorney who appealed a death penalty case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. He said he has tried more capital cases than any other judge in Texas.
While running for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Harle said he has maintained his busy court schedule, using no visiting judges.
Harle was the judge who recommended that the state convene a court of inquiry that led to the exoneration of Michael Morton, who was wrongly convicted and served almost 25 years in prison for murdering his wife.
Smith is not our Judge Steve Smith, who serves on the 361st District Court bench. This Steve Smith is a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court who filled the final two years of now-Gov. Greg Abbott's term. He was defeated in his bid for election to a full term in 2004 after Gov. Perry opposed him. He ran again in 2006 and again lost in parts thanks to Perry's opposition.
He now says the two top courts should be merged, an idea that has been floated frequently but probably is not a workable idea as the Court of Criminal Appeals already is one of the busiest appeals courts in the nation.
Smith says Harle is too moderate.
Webster has never been elected to office before. He is an assistant district attorney in Williamson County. He says he has strong views on Second-Amendment and other constitutional rights.
The fourth candidate, Scott Walker, is a criminal defense attorney in Texas who has chosen not to campaign.
Only Harle met with the Editorial Board, but he is an impressive candidate with an impressive record.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Judge Sid Harle for election to Place 5 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Judge Michael E. Keasler vs. Richard Davis -- We have been impressed with Judge Keasler every time we have interviewed him. He has been on the court for 17 years, providing reasoned, steady jurisprudence.
Keasler is 73 and when he turns 75, state law says he can serve only two more years. Thus, he would have to retire four years into his six-years term. The court has three new members, though, and Keasler said it is important that judges who have served longer remain to help the new judges settle in to their new roles.
"We provide institutional memory," Keasler said.
Davis is a Marble Falls attorney who did not meet with the Editorial Board. He is critical of Keasler's inability to serve a full six-year term. Although he never has been a judge, Davis served as a prosecutor in Sherman and Ector counties.
Texas would be lucky to have Keasler serve even four more years. His experience is too valuable to reject.
The Eagle recommends a vote for Judge Michael E. Keasler for re-election to Place 6 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.