Editorial note: This is the thirteenth in our series of electronic interviews with candidates in contested primaries at both the Statewide level and throughout Harris County. We have sent eight open-ended questions to each of the candidates. The following are verbatim copies of the questions sent out and the answers received.
Jani Jo Wood, candidate in the Republican primary for the Court of Criminal Appeals, place 4
Texpatriate: What is your name?
JW: Jani Jo Wood
T: What Office are you running for?
JW: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4
T: What is your profession/occupation?
JW: Attorney, Appellate Section, Harris County Public Defender’s Office
T: In just a few words, what does the office you are running for do and what are its responsibilities?
JW: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) is the highest criminal court in the Texas court system. There are nine judges on the CCA and I am seeking to become one of the nine.
The judges consider appeals of criminal cases as a collective group. Usually, the judges consider the second appeal of a criminal case. (The first appeal has been handled by a lower court of appeals.) But the judges do consider the first appeal of cases in which a defendant has been sentenced to death.
The CCA’s final work product is a written opinion explaining the legal reasons the case will either be affirmed (left standing) or reversed (overturned). Thus, the work of a judge on the CCA involves reading and listening to the arguments of lawyers, researching the law, and writing opinions. The work is very academic in nature. In this sense, the work of CCA judges is very much like the work of the judges on the United States Supreme Court.
In addition to regular appeals, CCA judges consider applications for writs of habeas corpus. These applications are brought by defendants who have already been convicted and have had their convictions upheld on appeal. These defendants may argue for relief on the basis of newly-discovered evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, or other such reasons. These applications are an important, but often-overlooked, part of the CCA’s work.
T: If you are running against an incumbent (primary or general), do you think the incumbent has failed? If so, why specifically?
JW: I am not running against an incumbent. The current judge (Paul Womack) is retiring. In fact, there are three seats up for election on the Court of Criminal Appeals this year. In each of the three races, the incumbent judge is retiring. So each of the three races is a contest for an open seat.
T: What would be your three biggest priorities if elected?Safeguarding our Individual Constitutional Rights. Our God-given rights under the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments are too often compromised in the name of law enforcement, security, and expediency. This needs to change. As Benjamin Franklin said, “[t]hey who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Opening the Workings of the Court to the Public. Currently, oral arguments before the Court cannot be viewed online or through any other medium – not even after the fact. In contrast, both live and archived versions of Texas Supreme Court arguments are available online. Additionally, legal briefs filed with the Court are not available online. This is inexcusable given the technology available today. It’s time to bring the CCA into the 21st Century.
Requiring the Full Court to Consider Applications for Writs of Habeas Corpus. The Texas Constitution declares that “[t]he writ of habeas corpus is a writ of right and shall never be suspended.” Despite the importance of this right, the full Court of Criminal Appeals does not evaluate applications for writs of habeas corpus. Rather, a single judge is assigned to rule upon a particular application. I believe all nine judges should consider each application. Would this mean more work for the judges? Yes. Should the Court make this change anyway? Of course – the protection of constitutional rights should win out over expediency every time.
T: What distinguishes you from your opponent(s)? Why should people specifically vote for you?
JW: My priorities as set out above. I don’t believe either of my opponents are as committed to the protection of individual constitutional rights as I am. I have never heard either of my opponents speak of making the Court more open. Nor have I heard either of my opponents advocate for a change in the way applications for writs of habeas corpus are handled. If you want to see these priorities stressed, I am your candidate.
A key part of being a good Court of Criminal Appeals judge is writing opinions that serve to educate the bar on proper criminal law procedures. Opinions should clarify the law – not make it more murky. As an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center, I have been educating future lawyers for nearly 15 years. Additionally, I frequently teach at the State Bar of Texas Advanced Criminal Law Course which trains judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.
And significantly, I am the only person in this race with extensive practice in federal court. This is extremely important because many of our state court convictions end up being challenged in federal court. When the Court of Criminal Appeals fails to fully consider every issue, federal courts are left to “guess” at what the Court’s decision was. A judge should always see the end game and write an opinion which will answer any questions the federal court might have.
T: What is the most important thing you have learned thus far in the campaign?
JW: That Texans are passionate about the United States Constitution. They don’t want to see our protections under the Bill of Rights chipped away. Security and expediency, while important, are competing values that must give way to constitutional rights. As a constitutional conservative, I believe that if it’s in the Constitution then all other competing interests need to take a back seat.