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Election amounts to judicial bench lotteries

November 17, 2018

There were some major lottery winners in Bexar County’s election night. Regrettably the prize was not hard, cold cash but rather judicial benches.

A Democratic sweep at the polls resulted in the defeat of 11 incumbent county court-at-law judges, seven district court judges and a probate judge — all Republican.

Going into election day, Republicans held 30 of the benches on the Bexar County ballot; three were held by Democrats. In January, Democrats will be presiding in 26 of them. The seven Republican incumbents who survived were on the ballot unopposed. They include two Republican county court judges and five Republican district judges.

The mass exodus from the courthouse is unfortunate, but not because we favor one party over the other. We don’t. We are simply in favor of good judges remaining on the bench, something straight-party voting undermines. No doubt, if a “red wave” election occurs (even with the elimination of the ability to vote straight party in 2020), we will be bemoaning the loss of quality Democratic judges.

But it was undeniably a blue wave in Bexar County in this election. And there are some outstanding legal minds with innovative ideas who will be exiting. Regrettably some of their replacements, in our estimation, have below-par credentials. Party affiliation and possession of a license to practice law are not guarantees that an individual has understanding of the law, judicial demeanor or the work ethic needed for the job.

Come 2020, voters will have to individually identify on the ballot the candidates for whom they want to cast a vote. It does not mean voters won’t still vote with the Republican or Democrat attached to the name the prime motivator. So voters will still likely elect bad judges or unseat good ones. But it does improve the chances of more studied choices.

Understand, there were some judges on the ballot who deserved to go. Among them were a contentious probate judge who disrespected laws, staff and constituents in her court. Her conduct came to the attention of the Commission on Judicial Conduct and resulted in admonition. There were two other county court judges with seriously questionable work-ethic issues and a third judge who resigned, moved out of town and set up a law practice while still on the ballot.

But, we lost several hard working judges who were doing outstanding work, exhibited knowledge about the area of the law practiced in their courts and could be counted on to dispense equal justice, things we should have every right to expect from our judiciary.

It is troubling that the resumes and past performance of some of the judges-elect fall short. Among the elected are lawyers who have not practiced in the courts they will be presiding and another who was threatened to be taken off the court appointment wheel in 2017 due to failure to show up in court.

We nonetheless hope all these judges will rise to high expectations. And we wish them all well. But, each election cycle, we worry about the quality of the candidates seeking benches because often its not the caliber of the candidate but rather their party label that matters.

Standards for judicial candidates need to be high. Once elected, judges are accountable only to the voters and they pretty much preside over their own fiefdoms. No one supervises them or calls them on it if they regularly take long breaks from the job or exhibit a questionable work ethic. And that’s regrettable.

We would be delighted to find our reservations about some of the judicial candidates were misplaced and they each prove to be outstanding jurists.

Ultimately, the real solution might be a bridge too far politically — having judges selected by retention, not in partisan elections. In the meantime, we urge voters in the next election to do their research when voting for judges. We fear that we will all pay a price for the straight-party voting in this election.

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