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Bench vacancy a coveted political prize

September 24, 2018

Never one to pass up the opportunity to make a political appointment, Bexar County commissioners plan to fill the Court-at-Law No. 1 bench left open by the resignation of John Fleming.

Commissioners began accepting applications for the post Thursday and are likely to announce a selection soon, ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.

Going through the process of screening candidates for a short-term appointment to the abandoned judicial bench could create more chaos for a troubled court.

Fleming’s erratic behavior in the weeks leading to his resignation last week helped bring a much-needed spotlight on a court that had been dysfunctional for years.

Fleming first announced his intent to resign in mid-August but then quickly changed that to plans to retire at the end of the year, when his term was set to expire. At the same time, he attempted to get his name off the November ballot. That move did not sit well with local Republican Party officials who were surprised by the sudden move, and they rejected his request to withdraw from the race.

That leaves Fleming, a reluctant candidate, facing Democrat Helen Petry Stowe on the ballot.

It would make sense for the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court to appoint Stowe, a assistant district attorney, to the bench. If she is the victor in November she will have a head start on the job. If commissioners don’t want to appoint Stowe, they should wait until after the November election to make the appointment. Bringing a third party into this troubled court a few short weeks before the election makes no sense.

Although Fleming has stated he does not want the job, it’s possible he could still come out ahead at the polls. If despite his best efforts to hang up his judicial robe, Fleming gets re-elected, it does not mean he would have to keep the job. He could once again resign, creating a new vacancy for commissioners to fill.

Commissioner Paul Elizondo cited the growing backlog in the misdemeanor court as one of the many reasons commissioners want to make an appointment before the election. This court has been operating with visiting judges for months and could have used serious intervention months ago. Waiting a few more weeks to fill the post wouldn’t change things much. Fleming’s court-at-law colleagues have volunteered to help handle his docket until the court gets back on track.

Elizondo said the county is soliciting applicants for the job because that is policy. We get that, but this is an unusual circumstance occurring only a few weeks before an election. Appoint Stowe or wait until after the November election to make the appointment.

If previous judicial appointments are any indication, the stack of applications will be tall and the line will be long of those seeking private audiences with commissioners to make their pitch.

It is a disservice to make candidates go through a screening process for a short-term job when the position is on the upcoming ballot.

If this appointment process is used to bestow the prestigious title of judge, if only temporarily, on a Commissioners Court favorite, it will only serve to further undermine public confidence in a judicial system already suffering the fallout of Fleming’s bizarre behavior.

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