Popular Influence in Texas Judicial Elections 

In theory, elections as a method of selecting judges align well with Texas political culture because it allows individuals to shape the state judicial system.  As we saw in previous discussions, however, there are some areas of concern when it comes to judicial elections, particularly involving campaign financing.  Here, we’ll expand on our understanding of the effectiveness of partisan elections at realizing the goal of popular influence.

Impediments to Popular Influence

Long ballot

Texas has what is known as the long ballot, which results from using elections as the method of appointment for most major political offices in the state.  In Texas, voters are tasked with making decisions regarding who should hold various legislative, executive, and judicial positions in local, county, and state government in addition to voting in support of opposition of propositions and constitutional amendments.  For Texas citizens, the cost of making informed decisions regarding all of the items that appear on a ballot in any given election cycle is very high.  As a result, straight-ticket voting became common practice in Texas.  The Texas legislature voted to remove the option of straight-ticket voting starting with the 2020 general election; however, this was reversed and straight-ticket voting was allowed for that election.

“At present, an overwhelming majority of Texas judges are elected based not on their legal qualifications and judicial philosophy, or even on their own campaign efforts, but rather on the performance of their party (in the straight-ticket vote) and of their party’s top-tier candidates (e.g., presidential, gubernatorial) within the jurisdiction where their race is being contested.” (Jones, 2017, p. 2)

Incumbency advantage

The incumbency advantage enjoyed by current officeholders during elections due to greater visibility, a proven record of public service, and better access to resources is robust in Texas.

Although partisan elections are the primary mechanism for judicial appointment to most courts in Texas, a large number of judges in state trial courts and state appellate courts initially reach the bench through recess appointments by the governor. Judges who enter their offices through recess appointments usually enjoy the same incumbency advantage at the polls as their colleagues who were previously elected by voters to serve in their offices.

Lack of knowledge about judicial campaigns and candidates

Judicial campaigns are often among the least visible campaigns during an election cycle.  As such, most voters have relatively little knowledge of judicial candidates.  Further complicating this is the fact that relying on party labels does not communicate valuable information to voters about the judicial candidates because voters do not have a good understanding of how partisanship plays into everyday judicial decision-making.

Uncontested Elections

From Reconstruction through the late 1900s, judicial races featured only Democratic candidates, who ran unopposed.  This changed in the 1980s, when “the emerging strength of the Republican party . . . led to contested elections, and straight-ticket voting has swept away many incumbent [Democratic] judges from their benches” (Womack, n.d.).  Today, judicial candidates – particularly those in local or county races – often run opposed.

Outcomes of Texas Judicial Elections

In theory, judges should be selected by voters based on their analyses of that candidate’s effectiveness.  In reality, due to the impediments discussed above, the outcome of Texas judicial elections are based in large part on party affiliation (voters in Texas tend to vote along party lines) and name recognition (voters choose a candidate based on familiarity with the candidate or previous recognition of a candidate’s name)

Texas Courts: The Basics

The Texas Constitution and Texas legislature have established a complex court system consisting of various local, county, and state courts, some of which have concurrent jurisdiction.  These courts can be classified into four different types: state appellate courts, which include the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and 14 courts of appeals; state trial courts of general and special jurisdiction, which include 477 district courts; county trial courts of limited jurisdiction, which include 254 constitutional county courts, 249 statutory county courts, and 18 statutory probate courts, and local trial courts of limited jurisdiction, including 802 justice of the peace courts and 944 municipal courts.  That’s A LOT of courts!

Bifurcated High Courts

At the top of the Texas judicial system sit the two highest courts in the state: the Texas Supreme Court, which handles matters involving civil law, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles matters involving criminal law.  Bifurcated court systems in which courts specialize in civil or criminal law are fairly uncommon.  Texas is one of two states that have separate high courts of final appellate jurisdiction for civil law and criminal law (the other state with a bifurcated court system is Oklahoma).

Judicial Selection in Texas

Except for most municipal court judges (whose appointment is defined in individual city charters and typically involves appointment by the city council), judicial appointment in Texas occurs through partisan elections (i.e., with their names appearing alongside a political party on the ballot).  All judges except those serving on the Texas Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals are chosen by voters who reside within a geographic district; justices on the Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals are chosen partisan elections that are conducted statewide (similar to the governor).

Qualifications to run in judicial elections vary depending on the court in question and “increase with the level of the court” (Womack, n.d.), as summarized in the table below.

Type of Judge Qualifications
Justices of the Peace No special qualifications
Municipal Court Judges Must be licensed to practice law in Texas; other qualifications vary
Constitutional County Court Judges Must be “well informed of the law of the State”, which “has not been interpreted to include a law license or formal study of law” (Womack, n.d.)
Statutory County Court Judges Must be licensed to practice law in Texas

Must have practiced law for four years preceding the election

At least twenty-five years old

District Court Judges U.S. and Texas citizen

Must be licensed to practice law in Texas

Must have practiced law as a lawyer or judge for four years preceding the election

Appellate Justices
(Courts of Appeals, Supreme Court, & Court of Criminal Appeals)
U.S. and Texas citizen

Must be licensed to practice law in Texas

Must have practiced law as a lawyer or judge of a court of record for at least ten years preceding the election

At least thirty-five years old

While there are benefits to partisan elections, many have criticized Texas’s use of partisan elections to select Texas judges.  Among these critics is former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, who referred to this judicial selection method as “a broken system.”

Removal of Texas Judges

Like the method of selection of state judges, removal methods vary depending on the court in question.  There are six ways in which judges in Texas may be removed from office (not including resignation or death):

  1. Failure to be reelected:  As previously discussed, partisan elections are used to select most of our judges.  Voters may choose not to reelect a judge in a general election
  2. Removal by the Texas Supreme Court:  The Texas Supreme Court may remove state district court judges for incompetence, official misconduct, or negligence
  3. Impeachment process:  Judges may be impeached by the Texas House of Representatives and removed with a 2/3 vote by the Texas Senate
  4. Removal by the governor:  District court judges and justices serving on state appellate courts may be removed by the governor for willful neglect of duty, incompetence, habitual drunkenness, oppression in office, or other reasonable cause on the address of 2/3 of the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate
  5. State commission on judicial conduct:  The state commission on judicial misconduct investigates and prosecutes allegations of judicial misconduct.  If the commission recommends removal or retirement, the Texas Supreme Court chooses a tribunal of various courts of appeals judges to review the recommendation and enter a judgment.  These judgments may be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court
  6. Retirement:  District court judges and justices serving on state appellate courts are required to retire when they reach seventy-five years of age (the legislature is given the authority by the Texas Constitution to reduce this age to seventy years)