House committee discusses judicial selection and term length

crim_gavelMethods of judicial selection and the length of judicial terms in Texas were on the agenda at a recent hearing of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence. Under the Texas Constitution, Art. 5, secs. 2, 4, and 6, justices or judges for the Supreme Court of Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the lower appellate courts of Texas are selected by general election to six-year terms.

Judicial selection. At a March 17 committee hearing, former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson discussed the Arizona model for judicial selection developed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she was president of the Arizona Senate. Under the Arizona model, non-partisan commissions vet judicial candidates based on merit. Each commission is chaired by the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court and has five members who are attorneys and 10 who are not. Commissioners are appointed by the governor. Arizona has four commissions — one for its appellate courts and one each for its three most populous counties. To fill open judicial seats, a commission presents the Arizona governor with a slate of at least three candidates, and the governor appoints a candidate from the list. After the first two years, and every few years after that, the appointed judges go before the voters in uncontested retention elections.

Supporters of appointment and retention elections say they reduce the need for judges to raise campaign funds. They point to the potential risk to judicial impartiality when funds come from lawyers who practice before the judge.

Opponents of appointment and retention elections say the current system in Texas of direct election of judges gives voters more input into and control over judicial selection than they might have under systems that rely on appointment and retention elections.

Term length. Committee members also discussed the length of terms served by appellate judges in Texas, including proposals to increase the current six-year term to eight or 10 years. Supporters of increasing the time between elections say it would allow judges to focus on deciding the cases before them without fear that an unpopular decision would adversely affect their chances of reelection.

by Tom Howe

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