Thursday, March 03, 2016

Democracy in the dark: Court of Criminal Appeals race decided by the ignorant

Grits suggested before the primary that I'd "be watching the Sid Harle/Steve Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds."

Short answer: They have.

Judge Harle, who arguably was the most qualified and well-respected jurist on the ballot, didn't even make the runoff to replace Cheryl Johnson on the court. Instead, a lawyer named Scott Walker who according to press accounts had "chosen not to campaign," led the field with 41%. He'll face Brent Webster, who ran on an anti-abortion platform unrelated to the activities of the Court of Criminal Appeals and garnered 20.45% of the vote.

Steve Smith ran third with 19.6%, with Harle trailing at 4th with 18.5%

Walker was popular because he shares a name with the Wisconsin governor who at one point appeared to be a presidential frontrunner before the Trump phenomenon erupted. Webster, presumably, benefited from his (irrelevant) pro-life bona fides, though so little is spent on these elections I suspect most people who voted for him knew nothing at all about him.

In the race between Mary Lou Keel, Chris Oldner, and Tea Partier Ray Wheless, Keel and Wheless made the runoff. Keel led, barely, but Wheless' base is more likely to turn out in the runoff. Keel and Oldner have disparaged Wheless, whose background is mostly in civil law, as unqualified, although Rick Perry appointed him to a district court seat.

Voters in the GOP primary clearly didn't have a clue about these CCA races. They may as well have drawn lots for Johnson's seat. These races are so underfunded for a state the size of Texas that candidates can't meaningfully get their messages out and voters have no way to know anything about them.

The Walker/Webster runoff is the strongest argument in my adult lifetime for appointing judges instead of electing them. What an embarrassment.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Judge Ryan Patrick (Senator Dan Patrick's son)is an appointed judge. Arguably the biggest joke in Texas, and a solid reason why judges should NOT be appointed as politics will take a precedent over qualifications(and sanity).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not close to the "biggest joke in Texas, after this election. Alcala, who is a Perry appointee, may be the best judge on the CCA. At least Perry knew who Ryan Patrick was. The same can't be said for voters.

Anonymous said...

Lots of local positions were essentially decided by uninformed voters who only showed up to the polls to vote for president and continued to make stupid decisions along the rest of the ballot. In my own county, there was a feeling of shock and dismay when highly qualified and experienced candidates lost to those who ran non-campaigns and refused to show up for "meet-the-candidate" nights and debates. Super Tuesday turns out to have been a very sad day in Texas. And on the eve of the 180th anniversary of Texas independence, too.

Gadfly said...

Anon No. 1 ... you're assuming this would be like Federal lifetime appointments.

You could appoint to 6-year terms, or like neighboring NM, appoint to a 4-year term with a "retention election" after that.

Anonymous said...

Uninformed voters re-elected former Judge Michael Seilers, who had resigned his position in lieu of prosecution on felony charges. http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/courier/news/maginnis-earns-runoff-wins-th-judge-race/article_c59c4156-e6e2-51a4-be6e-c51cebeee105.html

Anonymous said...

No, that was intentional so the local GOP could replace him with one of their own.

Some Conroe Lawyer

Anonymous said...

High turnout election day but horrible long lines ... I heard that every polling place got FOUR e-slates, not just ours (D - museum area); we qualified and voted almost 500 voters and didn't close polls until after 7:30; I wonder how many people walked away from the long lines winding around the buildings on the east side I saw on the news - enough to make a difference in any race? WHY just FOUR machines? We usually get 5 or 6 machines for our usual two precincts, on Tuesday we had four or was it five precincts? Even figuring there were twice as many polling places because there were R polls too - they didn't use all the machines. Why not? Cui bono?

Bill Habern said...

Until we do away with the direct election of judges in this and adopt a judicial selection method similar to many other states, Texas will continue to be last on the list when it comes to having an enlightened judiciary.

Bill Habern
Habern, Oneil and Asso
Not a Partnership

Geoffrey Puryear said...

Grits, I am going to have to disagree with your assessment of this race. I know Brent Webster and know him to be an ethical, talented attorney who would be a valuable addition to this court. It's true he is a conservative and pro-life and was endorsed by every major conservative group in Texas, but this is the Republican primary. Brent has also dedicated his entire career to serving Texans as a criminal prosecutor and has the experience to do the job.

Gunny Thompson said...

My Brothers and Sisters, an issue that the African-American Legal Defense has argued for over two decades is that appointed officers are disqualified for elected officer, which includes judges and prosecutors. Nor are officers eligible for an unrelated office, both positions violate the separation of powers, a Texas Constitution. To be qualified for an unrelated office, a candidate must have been out of his/her previous government position for at least one complete term.

An issue of whether one qualifications is determined by conservative, pro-life, party libels has produced a corrupt, racist government that support Jim Crow laws which deprive African-Americans an equal access to justice.

Anonymous said...

Well, as far as Texas goes - The Second Court of Appeals shows incompetence in NOT knowing Constitutional Law of Texas or anything about Treaties. The Texas Supreme Court is much the same by denying lawful cases.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@GP, a career prosecutor from the Williamson County DA, and a young one at that, is awfully narrow "experience" and not a background that makes me think he's predisposed toward defending constitutional rights. Couple that with running on a pro-life platform for a criminal court, and I'm dubious at best that he would be "a valuable addition." Others who are more knowledgeable than me about the candidates, and whose views I respect, have expressed the same concerns to me. I hope I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Webster isn't a "prosecutor" as that term is traditionally understood. He's the general counsel for a DA's office. He doesn't try cases, he doesn't handle appeals. A large portion of his work is not really even criminal law. I'm under no illusions that this Walker guy is particularly qualified, but he at least seems to have some minor appellate experience. A run of the mill trial prosecutor or defense lawyer (which seems to be what Walker is) with 20 years of experience is significantly more qualified for this position than Webster.

I practice in front of the CCA on a regular basis. The thought of having either of these guys on the court disturbs me. Though since we're losing Myers, I suppose we need a new knucklehead to maintain a certain level of unprofessionalism.

Ryan Paige said...

I would be wary of anyone who had spent considerable time working in the Williamson County DA's office, regardless of position within that office. It's not exactly been a hotbed of ethical, or even legal, behavior.

Ray Wheless said...

Fellow lawyers, my background is not "primarily civil." Yes, I am Board Certified in Civil Trial Law and Personal Injury Trial Law, and that must be where that mistaken belief comes from. However, I served as a county court at law judge for nine years, trying one or two criminal jury trials per week. During those years, the Collin County Courts at Law tried more criminal jury trials than any other courts in Texas, averaging over 60 jury trials per year per court. I estimate during that time I easily tried over 500 criminal jury trials and handled over 20,000 criminal cases. I have been a district judge for over six years, handling criminal cases from capital murder to theft. Before I took the bench, I was a practicing lawyer for twenty years. During the first ten years of my career, the majority of my practice was spent in representing citizens accused of crimes. I also served as the municipal prosecutor for the City of Plano during that time. During the ten years before I took the bench, I practiced civil law and criminal law. I represented people charged with crimes in appeals before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The last one was decided two days before I took the bench. During my last five years in private practice, I obtained nineteen consecutive not guilty verdicts in DWI trials. Two years ago, I applied for an appointment to the Dallas Court of Appeals. The Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association wrote a letter recommending me for the appointment. I am endorsed in this race by the District Attorneys of Collin, Denton and Grayson County. I am the only candidate in this race who has ever been in private practice and the only candidate who has agonized over losing a case for a flesh and blood client. I am the only candidate who has expressed concerns over wrongful convictions. I would appreciate your vote.

Anonymous said...

@GP. First I don't believe Webster was endorsed by EVERY major conservative group in the State, that statement is just false. A simple review of Harle's endorsements dispels that assertion. Being an ethical and talented attorney hardly makes one qualified to sit on the State high court (maybe you should ask your Dad about whether that would carry the day at the Austin Court of Appeals). Being General Counsel to Jana Duty makes him even less qualified, after all, based on her behavior and somebody's representation in that office, she spent time in jail for her misconduct. Having practiced in Wilco and dealt with that office, it hasn’t exactly been the hotbed of ethical behavior by either Bradley, or Duty over the last 10 years (just ask Michael Morton). Since he has never been a judge, what I want to know about Webster, which he failed to ever mention in his campaign, is how many real cases (misdemeanors, felonies and death penalties) and appeals did he first chair. Anybody who campaigns on a prolife and 2nd Amendment platform and fails to mention the real experience needed for that Court is disingenuous and simply trying to distract ignorant voters about their real lack of qualifications (it worked). During a time when one of Webster’s opponents, Steve Smith, some in the legislature and Nathan Hecht, the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court are advocating to abolish the TCCA, a Webster win just adds fuel to that fire and is an embarrassment to the institution. It’s hard to imagine electing somebody to that Court with no real appellate experience, no capital experience and limited felony experience, but hey he’s prolife and pro 2nd Amendment. As somebody who regularly practices before that Court, I can’t remember the last time those issues ever came before the Court. Has Webster even met the 10 years requirement to be on the Court, or will that come later this year? Let’s be candid, Webster, Smith and Walker got in at the last minute, because Abbott got rid of the signature requirement, all they had to do was pay their filing fee in order to play “judicial lottery” at the highest level. Who are the biggest losers? Just ask Michael Morton, here’s what he had to say in response to Harle’s loss, “This post is yet ANOTHER reason this man should be on the CCA. Sometimes, the voters get the gov't they deserve.” Of course, anybody who spent their entire career in the DA’s Office in Wilco could not appreciate Morton's comment. At this point, I’ll take the older guy from Ft. Worth who served in the US Air Force, at least he lists the number of cases he has tried and appealed during his career and doesn't flaunt his pro-life and pro-gun platform over real experience, which have virtually nothing to do with that Court.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fair enough, Judge Wheless, I apologize for the mischaracterization.