Saturday, August 11, 2007

Will Democrats field candidates against "Texas' worst court"?

Texas elects our judges, and in the case of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals we have elected a group who Texas Monthly has called "Texas' worst court," and who continue to affirm draconian sentences in the face of legitimate "actual innocence" claims.

First DNA wasn't good enough to exonerate someone, now they're relying on narrowly construed technicalities to refuse to consider new evidence in a death case. Their recent decisions in criminal cases have been struck down more often by the US Supreme Court than any other state's high court. In short, they've become a national embarrassment.

But in 2006, Democrats ran no candidates against two of the three incumbents who were up, and the Democrat who did run against CCA Chief wasn't a legitimate candidate - J.R. Molina spent virtually nothing and refused to even attend newspaper editorial board meetings. Still he got 43% of the vote. By comparison Chris Bell, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, received 29%! Libertarians in the other two CCA races received that party's highest totals in any statewide race.

As we head into the political season with primaries six months away, I'm disappointed that no Democratic candidate nor Republican primary challenger has stepped up so far to take on any CCA incumbent.

I had hoped Judge Susan Criss in Galveston might run for a CCA seat, but she decided to pursue a slot on the Texas Supreme Court - more power to her and good luck, but she would have been a great high court addition on the criminal side, I thought.

Past Democratic Senate nominee Barbara Radnofsky is another name that's come up as a good possibility for the CCA - she's got more name ID, especially among Democrats, than a lot of potential candidates bring to the table, but I haven't heard anything concrete about her plans. Rob Owen, one of the attorneys who keeps getting CCA death penalty decisions knocked down at the Supreme Court, is someone else who'd make a good CCA judge, and I wish he'd throw his hat in the ring.

Somebody with experience or name ID would be good, but in the general election at least it hardly matters. Think about the judicial and DA's races in Dallas in 2006 - a lot of those folks didn't expect to win, but by fielding candidates they were able to take advantage of opportunities provided by larger, macro-level national events. Judicial seats are downballot races, so candidates don't have to raise that much money, by comparison with other statewide seats, to become real players.

That will also be true in 2008. Certainly much will depend on who are the nominees at the top of the national ballot. But if, as in 2006, the general electorate trends especially Democratic because of national issues like the war, a campaign for these judicial seats against already weak incumbents could earn the party its first statewide officeholders in years.

The issues for the race are clear, the discontent abundant, but it's impossible to win without horses in the race. And hopefully not just placeholders unwilling to run a real campaign, but candidates of whom the Dems can be proud.

UPDATE: After an email exchange with Barbara Ann Radnofsky, she tells me her name should not be considered a possibility for the CCA, though she's giving consideration to a run for an Attorney General's slot in 2010. She shares Grits' hope, though, that quality candidates can be found to take advantage of the electoral opportunities arising in 2008.

8 comments:

Perry Dorrell, aka PDiddie said...

BAR is eyeing a run for Attorney General in 2010.

Anonymous said...

I agree the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is a national disgrace.

I believe the current court relies completely upon staff and interns to research the law. Then rubber stamps whatever they come up with.

We need experienced Judges willing to work hard to ensure the people of Texas have a meaningful review of their appeals. Not a rubber stamp!

IWTS said...

I am considering a Libertarian Party run for the CCA. If I can get the Grits vote I should have a great chance.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

IWTS - I'd strongly encourage you run as a Dem or in the R primary. (You'd likely have a better chance as a Dem.) With respect, amigo, there's a serious opportunity here to unseat some of these folks that I'd hate to waste. Run in one of those races and I might even help work your campaign!

Scott Cobb said...

There is a very strong chance that the political climate in 2008 will produce a strong coattail effect for people running as Democrats - even in Texas. I encourage people to run for the CCA as Democrats. 2008 could be a year for the Democrats similar to what 1980 was for the Republicans nationwide - sweeping into office a lot of new faces.

JT Barrie said...

Admittedly, I only took three semesters of law in college - but I do know that common law trumps statutory law all the time. I also know that most new laws are unenforceable and trample over defendant rights.
The only thing that has really changed over the years is that the pool of citizens subject to law has been expanded to include those without property, women, and slaves [slavery being abolished]. There have always been problems with being underage or of dubious mental capacity. If you aren't afforded protections you shouldn't be assessed penalties by the same law. All these mandatory minimum punishments for teens is clearly illegal and should have been overturned decades ago.

Monty said...

"J.R. Molina spent virtually nothing and refused to even attend newspaper editorial board meetings."

This presupposes that campaigning or attending editorial board meetings makes any difference in these below-the-radar statewide judicial races.

I ran for the CCA in 2002.
Like J.R. Molina, I was qualified, and supported by my party.

I ran against a Republican incumbent who wrote the infamous Saldano opinion, and who had failed to file years worth of campaign finance reports, even ignoring certified letters from the Texas ethics commission.

Qualifications and reputation notwithstanding, my result was like that of every other Democratic statewide candidate for well over a decade.

Voters vote "R" or "D," and in Texas it is emphatically "R."

In fact, the lack of interest in the campaign actually helped my campaign. I was the fifth leading vote recipient among statewide Democratic candidates. Our Democratic candidate for Governor received significantly fewer votes than I did, despite spending sixty million dollars, compared to my three thousand dollar filing fee.

So much for the "any publicity is good publicity" maxim!

After the 2000 election, the R-controlled legislature passed an incumbent protection act, making it far more difficult for candidates such as myself or J.R. to get on the statewide ballot.

This was achieved by requiring any candidate to obtain more than ten thousand statewide petition signatures, divided among the 14 judicial appellate districts; all to appear on the ballot for an office that few voters know or care about.

Texas is a huge place. Traveling in support of a campaign requires lots of money, and significant time away from work. Few voters
learn about the court or the issues through meeting traveling judicial candidates, and CCA candidates never have sufficient funds to use television advertising.

I hope that my party will garner candidates for the CCA in 2008, but I fear that Texas will continue to select judges for this important court with the "R" and the "D" analysis, and little else.

I wish I had the time and money to give it another go in 2008, but I think the best I can do is support a qualified candidate.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Monty, certainly everyone must evaluate their own personal position, financial, familial, and otherwise, before committing to a race, and I didn't mean to disrespect those who've run in the past. I also agree with you the barriers to participation are high but not insurmountable, which is why I raise this now when there's still time to do something about it.

At the same time, surely you agree that the political climate in 2008 is not 2002, right after 9/11 when partisanship and the president's popularity was at its highest.

I've performed opposition and/or defensive research in about 22 different judicial campaigns in Texas over the years, so I'm well aware of the downballot dynamic. Still, I'm convinced that a) hanging a well messaged attack on an incumbent (or in this case a group of incumbents) can work, because b) voter dissatisfaction with Repub leadership is at an all-time high, and the CCA continues to embarrass the state. With their strident defiance of the Supreme Court, their record will play poorly with the increasingly large class of independent voters - possibly a quarter of the electorate or more, at this point.

I'm speculating and you've been there, Monty, but the situation, I think has really changed.

Molina had zero name I.D., ran no campaign at all and got 14% more than Chris Bell who spent millions. That's a latent antipathy for the CCA that I don't think existed in 2002, and I believe/hope a credible set of candidates could capitalize on it. I'd certainly be willing to help. Enough's enough, ya know? best,