Monday, October 13, 2008

Bluing of the Dallas Judiciary Foreshadows Turnover Among Harris Judges; CCA Electoral Update

In typical times, judicial politics in Texas plays out in the springtime every even-numbered year in the primaries of the party in power. If you want to dismiss an incumbent local judge in an election, the only viable way to do it for all intents and purposes is usually a primary challenge. Voters in November don't pay attention to elections that far down the ballot, particularly in a Presidential election year. The vast majority of voters pick judges based solely on their political party, not on their qualifications or record. That's also true for the state's two highest courts - the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.

However, these are not typical times and this year the November elections promise more action in judicial races, particularly in Texas' largest cities. A commenter over at Sentencing Law & Policy pointed me to an item I'd missed back in September from the Dallas NBC affiliate announcing that "As many as seven Republican judges in Dallas County are jumping to the Democratic Party." Most pols I've talked to predict that all incumbent Republicans who did not switch in Dallas will lose - every last one of them, good and bad.

In Houston, nine of the 25 judicial races in play are criminal courts. Voters there came within a whisker in 2006 of a judicial turnover in Harris similar to what happened in Dallas, and a high pro-Obama turnout could easily boost Democratic fortunes enough to take all 25 seats, a transition which would represent a stunning change for Harris County, a long-time GOP bastion.

Similarly, especially with relatively low fundraising totals and fewer policy differences among candidates than we'd have seen if incumbent Chuck Rosenthal hadn't imploded, the Harris County District Attorney's race will likely be decided by who benefits most from the coattails of their party's presidential candidate: Give the edge to C.O. Bradford if that's the case.

The Court of Criminal Appeals races are less likely to flip, though those too are a down-ballot races that will be decided based on macro-level partisan trends. Basically, Texas' statewide vote would have to go Democratic, or close to it (Republicans on the CCA tend to do slightly worse than other statewide GOP candidates), for challengers in these races to have a chance.

Unfortunately, Democrats only fielded one strong candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals - Susan Strawn, who received the endorsements of both the Dallas News and the Houston Chronicle in her bid to unseat incumbent Tom Price. Perennial candidate J.R. Molina, who's running against incumbent Cathy Cochran Paul Womack, refuses to campaign for office or even participate in candidate interviews with the press.

I've met Susan Strawn and think she could be a fine judge. OTOH, I've never even met anyone who's met J.R. Molina, including Strawn! Maybe he'd be a terrific judge, but his campaigning performance makes me suspect he'd be a phenomenal and embarrassing dud. By contrast, his opponent Judge Cochran is an intellectual force on the court and one of its more cogent thinkers, though in the context of the group Texas Monthly called "Texas' Worst Court," that may be damning with faint praise.

In any event, the CCA races won't be decided on the merits, unfortunately, so qualifications in a practical sense don't matter in terms of the outcome. Put it this way: If Rick Noriega even gets close to becoming senator, J.R. Molina will likely be on the Court of Criminal Appeals regardless of whether he's competent to represent someone in traffic court. That makes me especially glad Susan Strawn decided to run, on the off chance the stars align and Democrats happen to take those seats.

CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: Susan Strawn contacted me to correct my error ABOVE about J.R Molina's opponent and to let me know she had met Molina; she had not met him yet when I'd spoken to her after the primaries. Reading this again, perhaps I'm being a bit hard on Mr. Molina, though I wish, if he's going to put his name on the ballot, that he'd bother to tell voters why they should elect him.


Anonymous said...

..."Bradford has denied claims by former employees that he knew about the severity of the lab problems." - article from last month

This is all your need to know
about how Bradford; he has a management style that is at best naive and at worst grossly incompetent; he said the same things about the terrible K-mart raid...what do you think will happen when something big comes up if he's Harris County's next DA?

Fact: Bradford has NO endorsements outside of the City of Houston...NO organization from any of the 30+ other cities in Harris County have endorsed Brad. He only knows the big city way; he only knows Houston. He does not reach out to the rest of the county and thinks he doesn't have to.

Hey Brad: The office you are running for is not 'Houston District Attorney'...its Harris County District Attorney.

Anonymous said...

Just let me know who Rick Perry would not recommend, and those are the folks I will be voting for...

Anonymous said...

According to that DMN article and the SOS, Cochran did not draw a democractic opponent. Molina is running against Paul Womack.