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When it comes to judicial candidate it’s all about party affiliation

September 1, 2018

A recent Express-News headline that read “Former judge loses appeal” sends a strong message about why making informed decisions in judicial races matters.

These elections in Texas are partisan. They shouldn’t be, but until election laws are changed we will have to live with that.

A “Republican” or a “Democrat” attached to a name carries no guarantees about a candidate’s integrity, work ethic or knowledge of the law. But every election cycle, partisan voting on these down-ballot races brings unqualified candidates to the bench and sweeps out hardworking, long-tenured jurists.

The headline referenced the conviction of former 144th District Judge Angus McGinty. He was serving his first term in office when he pleaded guilty on federal public corruption-related charges and was sentenced to two years in prison. After stalling on his turn-in date by claiming his own lawyers were among those he had taken bribes from while on the bench, McGinty began serving his prison sentence in September 2017 in Memphis, Tenn.

McGinty came into office during a Republican sweep that unseated Democratic incumbent Catherine Torres-Stahl in 2010. He was making a bid for re-election in 2014 when his legal woes began, prompting him to resign and withdraw from the race, but it was too late have his named removed from the ballot. Although McGinty had resigned and was the focus of a public corruption probe, he managed to take 24 percent of the vote in that election, drawing more than 12,000 votes in the 2014 Republican primary ballot.

As the Editorial Board meets with the candidates who are going to be on the ballot in the November general election, we are once again hearing rumblings about the questionable work ethic of some members of the local judiciary and politically motivated decision-making.

Once judges are elected, they are answerable to no one except the voters when they are up for re-election. They don’t have to punch in when they show up to work or clock out when they are leaving. They don’t have to account for sick or vacation days. Records are kept on visiting judges who fill in for absent judges, but in many cases those records don’t tell the complete story.

Often jurists who like to keep short hours at the courthouse or take frequent vacations expect their colleagues to take up the slack.

There should be some mechanism — tangible and quantifiable — so voters know beyond anecdotes how hardworking (or not) their judges are. We will explore this more in the near future.

Incumbent candidates all seem to agree there is a problem in their midst, but they are quick to point out it’s not in their courts and offer few suggestions how elected members of the judiciary can be held more accountable.

But work ethic is not the only problem.

Questioned about the cost of carrying out a viable political campaign in difficult fundraising times, one challenger said he raised limited funds, but he had seen several candidates raise no money at all and make no effort to campaign. He said many candidates viewed the $2,500 filing as no more than a gambling wager. If they win, the price is a guaranteed salary and benefits for four years.

The culture that has developed — spawned by whether this will be a blue-wave or red-wave election cycle — is troubling and must change to maintain the integrity of our judiciary and ensure public confidence in the justice system.

If we are fortunate, most of us will never find ourselves before a judge as criminal defendants, but many of us will likely be there at one time or other for a proceeding involving adoption, divorce or a will being probated. Or maybe it will be in support of friends and family in a court proceeding.

We would like to think that the most respected members of the legal bar are sitting on the bench and they are not there just because they had the “right” party affiliation during the last election.

Bottom line: Do your research before voting in judicial races in November. Our recommendations will be coming soon.

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