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EDITORIAL: Can we do better in how we gauge, select our state judges?

EDITORIAL: Can we do better in how we gauge, select our state judges?

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We heartily congratulate criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Thomas West on his decisive victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff election win for state district judge. A friend of ours long in the legal community Wednesday morning pronounced that West or his opponent, former justice of the peace Kristi DeCluitt, would have been fine succeeding 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother next year. All four candidates in the March 3 GOP primary election impressed us during a candidate forum sponsored by the McLennan County Republican Club.

We hope that West, who faces no Democratic opponent in the fall election, can conjure all the necessary judicial poise and pomp following a knock-down, drag-out campaign season of more than six months. Competition became pretty intense for candidates and some voters.

All of which rekindles our interest in a 15-member state commission studying possible reforms for our partisan system of electing judges, one encouraged by no less than Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and due to report findings before the Texas Legislature meets in January. Subcommittees reportedly are focusing on the problems in partisan elections; pluses and minuses in selecting judges by appointment; and the qualification requirements for Texas judges.

Even some fierce political partisans have raised legitimate questions about people running for judge under Republican or Democratic banners. This can lead to candidates embracing ideological positions and assuming stances conflicting with their supposed lack of bias. And few spectacles are more jarring than seeing local judges at party gatherings that descend into incendiary partisan rants or demagoguery.

As Emma Platoff of Texas Tribune wrote in January, our system of electing judges in Texas leads to “a system rife with potential conflicts of interest, as lawyers write campaign contribution checks to judges they may appear in front of weeks later and voters select among partisan candidates who promise to serve impartially once seated on the bench.” In 2019, after Democrats trounced Republican judges in heavily populated areas, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a Republican, complained about the election of jurists whose chief asset is that they’ve been good and faithful members of one party or the other. He was right in judgment, wrong on timing.

Even some of the endorsements judicial candidates brandish should raise red flags, whether one touts endorsement of a pro-life group, which you can argue raises conflict-of-interest questions about a judge’s application of law and precedent in weighing life-or-death matters, or a candidate’s touting the endorsement of a law enforcement lobbying group, which you can argue paves the way for a judge’s bias for police testimony in criminal court proceedings. At a time when the public is increasingly questioning fairness and impartiality of the judiciary, we wish the best to Thomas West in striking the proper balance in his court come January. Meanwhile, we eagerly await the state commission’s report on how we can take our entire state judiciary beyond skepticism, doubt and reproach.

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