As firm proof the Waco metropolitan area is growing steadily and society is growing increasingly litigious, residents will get a chance to further contemplate Texas justice in action not only through creation of two local courts — a third county court-at-law and a sixth district court — but also through the jurists who will steer them from the very outset. Atop that, the Waco-based 10th Court of Appeals overseeing 18 counties has lost a third of its three-judge panel with last month’s resignation of Justice John Neill. This means McLennan County Commissioners will pick a judge for the new county court-at-law, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will tap a successor for Neill and a judge for the new 474th State District Court.
At times the state and federal judiciaries seem to constitute the only branch of government that shows any sense of propriety and decorum about its duties, including equal and fair application of the law. Let’s hope commissioners and the governor choose wisely with an eye to our societal benefit under the rule of law as well as their own reputations. The worst decisions would involve selection of jurists whose pursuits of overtly partisan aims would naturally raise questions about their ability to get beyond biases. Even now, it’s unsettling to see district and court-at-law judges at political meetings where the rhetoric can veer into the realm of the radicalized and the so-called warmup humor shames all assembled.
Yes, judges running for county, district and state courts in Texas ordinarily run as Republicans or Democrats, even though judicial standards frown upon jurists who display the partisanship many must nonetheless embrace briefly to win their jobs. Worse, as the Trib editorial board discovered back when regularly interviewing judicial candidates, many balk at discussing even broadly controversial issues they might one day face. Some are allergic to explaining too fully decisions on which they’ve already ruled (which in any case can be gleaned from reading their written opinions). In the final analysis, this often leaves only their legal experience and party label to define them to voters.
During a Texas Commission on Judicial Selection meeting last year, former Texas Supreme Court chief justice Wallace Jefferson, descendant of former slave Shedrick Willis who after the Civil War served on the Waco City Council, lamented that capable judicial candidates in recent times have lost elections “because during that election they had the wrong political party attached to their name or because often in a primary they had the wrong name — it was confusing or ethnic-sounding — and people have a difficult time winning elections under those circumstances.” Some lost, he said, because “they were unable to raise the kind of money you need to raise to be competitive in a judicial election.”
At Baylor Law School seminars and forums we’ve attended, faculty members and legal experts stress such qualities as legal competence, insightful knowledge of the law and U.S. Constitution and, finally, professional and personal integrity. Let’s hope that county commissioners as well as the governor — the latter, after all, a former district judge and state supreme court justice — can articulate rationale in their selections for this slate of judges. They should remember that those jurists who demonstrate the highest judicial scruples and discretion will bring honor not only to our battered system of justice but those public servants who chose them above all others for the job.