Meticulously following both the 2013 election and the 2014 election has led me to examine the many differences between the two campaign cycles. In the former, an individual voter makes selections in a grand total of 8 elections at City Hall, plus one or two –give or take– around various school boards. The duties and responsibilities for these elected posts are quite straightforward. Stewardship of a municipality typically deals with rather simple issues, such as budgets and the passage of ordinances that directly deal with the public. The weeds of the issue may be complex, but it can be simplified into a newspaper headline at the end of the day.
The races down at the Courthouse, in a word, are not. Quite different from off-year elections, the average voter in Harris County will find herself with about 90 different contests to make a selection in, the vast majority of which being local judicial offices. I’m not naive, I know darn well that over 99 out of 100 voters will not bother to know the inside story about each and every race, and will likely just pull the lever straight ticket one way or another. Indeed, I would be comfortable assuming today that the sizable majority of the judicial candidates I vote for will be Democrats, even though I have not begun to intently analyze any of these contests.
One of the biggest problems with public engagement in this process is the shear number of candidates; even for the most experienced political mavens, it can be overwhelming. As I have lightly opined in the past, perhaps Texas should not elect its judges. While electing one District Judge and one County Judge for a small community may have made sense 100 years ago, the staggered hodgepodge of literally hundreds of jurists in the Harris County area just is not effective anymore.
But an equally frustrating problem that can occur when trying to make rational decisions in these contests is the amount of legal jargon and complexity thrown into the equation. Maury Maverick, the Mayor of San Antonio from 1935 to 1939, was arguably best known for coining the word “gobbledygook,” for excessively bureaucratic language. I am a layperson, as is the vast majority of the Texas electorate, so most of the goings-on at the Courthouse are coated in what could only generously be referred to as such gobbledygook.
However, such an attitude is enormously damaging to the integrity of the entire county. The great/scary thing about the way our judicial selection is set up is that I have the exact same say in selecting a Judge than an attorney who has practiced before that courtroom for the past 40 years. And obviously, there are a lot more people like me than like the hypothetical attorney.
At Texpatriate, we have positively zero attorneys among our contributors. Thus, there is some light confusion when we deal with going-ons at the Courthouse, namely our endorsement process for judicial elections. For the Democratic & Republican primaries, as well for the upcoming general election, we consulted with a few anonymous attorneys with special expertise in the courts we were profiling. However, at the end of the day, we made our own decisions.
I think that is one of the best parts about our judicial system, how open it is to the general public (at least, theoretically). Court Coordinators and other court staff, all of whom are invaluable to the process of how the legal system moves along, are seldom attorneys. Similarly, both grand juries and petite juries are almost always comprised of non-lawyers. The adjudication of a case, in many instances, is literally only decided as a direct result of their action.
Make no mistake, the best way to directly involve yourself in courthouse politics is to speak up on the issues or get involved. If you are unfamiliar with the background of certain issues, consult a friend who is an attorney to help you out. As an adulteration of the famous Pericles quote, just because you don’t take an interest in the Courthouse, doesn’t mean the Courthouse won’t take an interest in you.
Chances are, you or someone you know will be involved in the Criminal Justice system, either as a defendant, a victim or a witness. You may very well have a high-stakes squabble over money, which would be routed into Civil Court. With over 50% of marriages ending in divorce, there is also a high probability that you end up in a Family Court. And, of course, one of the ugliest truths of life is that you and everyone you are related to will eventually die, likely to leave behind an estate that must be probated in Court.
My parting advice is merely to do a little digging about these judicial offices yourself, because straight ticket voting –in many instances– simply will not cut it. Many incumbent Republican Judges are decent and fair legal minds, but many are not. It’s up to you to change that.