Texas needs to take money and politics out of its legal system.
The coincidence of partisan elections, campaign contributions and external spending undermines trust in the legal system and tarnishes court rulings. Conflicts of interest occur routinely, but equally detrimental is the appearance of a conflict of interest that raises the question of whether an outcome was fair and impartial.
Cue a donation of $ 250,000 from Apache Corp., a Houston-based oil company, to a political action committee that supported the re-election of Texas Supreme Court justices last fall. At the same time, as Eric Dexheimer of Hearst Newspapers recently reported, Apache had urged the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider its decision not to hear Apache’s appeal in a case of gender and age discrimination. The case had resulted in a $ 900,000 verdict against the company.
Such samples are denied 98 percent of the time, but in this case the request was granted and the Supreme Court ultimately sided with Apache.
Was the reversal a reflection of the high spending through the PAC on judicial fairness in support of incumbent judges? Eventually, Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht and Judge Jeff Boyd sought re-election while hearing the case (two other judges who were running for re-election declined).
This very question is why Texas needs to reform its judiciary election, and we have to state that Hecht was a leading voice for reform. The presence of political spending and partisanship undermines confidence in our judicial system.
This is not just our view – it is also the view of the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection, which in a December report found that a majority of commissioners supported ending the partisan elections. A majority of commissioners also opposed bipartisan elections and overwhelmingly supported raising the minimum qualifications for service in a bank and further regulating political spending on legal elections.
We would like judges to be appointed by an external, apolitical body like the American Bar Association, followed by bipartisan elections. This would take money and politics out of the justice system and help avoid partisan raids that often remove talented and experienced lawyers.
Texas has more than 1,000 elected judges. We should all strive for a judicial system that is free from a conflict of interests.