Justice Jefferson urges merit rule
Texas has a lot of honorable elected judges. Still, 80 percent of people polled think money and influence affect how judges rule.
Jefferson, initially appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to fill a vacancy in 2001, is a Republican, as are the other eight Supreme Court justices, and all nine of the members of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Jefferson was elected in 2002 to a full sixyear term. Perry named him chief justice in 2004, when 17-year incumbent Tom Phillips quit the court. Jefferson was re-elected again in 2008.
Although Jefferson raised and spent considerable money on his own election and re-election races, he says he's "concerned by the public's perception that money in judicial races influences outcomes.
"This is an area where perception itself destroys public confidence," Jefferson told a joint session of the Texas Legislature in his State of the Judiciary speech Feb. 11.
Texas is one of only seven states that still have partisan judicial elections, Jefferson said. "Twenty-five states either have a complete merit selection system or a system that combines merit selection with other methods," Jefferson said.
State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is again filing legislation that would have merit selection at least of appellate judges.
It previously has cleared the Senate, but never the House.
Jefferson has joined at least four of his predecessors as chief justice - Robert W. Calvert, Joe Greenhill, John L. Hill, and Tom Phillips - in calling for some form of merit selection.
Partisan sweeps have made wholesale judicial switches in major urban counties in Texas in 1994 to the Republicans, and in 2006 in Dallas County and 2008 in Harris County to the Democrats, Jefferson noted.
While removing straight-ticket voting for parties might help alleviate the election of anonymous judges simply because of the R or D after their name, Jefferson said merit selection is better.
"I would like to claim that voters gave me the honor of continued service due to stellar credentials, but it may just as well have been tied to (John) McCain's success in Texas," Jefferson said.
(Though he lost the presidential election nationally, McCain got 55.4 percent in Texas. Jefferson got 53.1 percent.)
"And this is the point," Jefferson said. "Justice must be blind - it must be as blind to party affiliation as to the litigant's social or financial status."
The Republican and Democratic party platforms both call for continuing to elect judges.
Not the Republican chief justice.
"(T)he State of our Judiciary will be made stronger if we appoint our judges based on merit, and hold them accountable in retention elections," Jefferson said.
"To those who say we cannot achieve this lofty goal, I have three words: 'Yes we can,'" he said.
Kids, Hurricanes, Indigents, Innocents. . . . Jefferson, echoing a growing concern by legislative and other leaders, said that "the first duty of justice should be the protection of our most vulnerable citizens of all - our children."
He has named Justice Harriet O'Neill to head up the Supreme Court's Permanent Commission on Children, Youth and Families.
Jefferson said judges play a big role in the lives of children "thrust into the legal system through no fault of their own.
Only a court order can remove them from their families, or return them to their homes.
"Only a judge can determine who visits a child, or when to terminate a parent's rights," Jefferson said.
"And where child abuse or neglect is involved, justice is ensured only if its administration is thoughtful and swift," he continued.
The commission has provided $1.4 million in grants for more judicial and legal training throughout the state, he said.
After Louisiana's legal system was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Jefferson said the Texas court set up a Task Force to Ensure Judicial Readiness in Times of Emergency.
So when Hurricane Rita devastated Galveston and parts of the Houston area, many emergency legal matters were sent to courts in adjacent counties, Jefferson said.
A Task Force on Indigent Defense, led by Court of Criminal Appeals justice Sharon Keller, has helped set up public defender offices in various parts of Texas.
Jefferson also endorsed efforts by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston and others to establish a commission on innocence, to investigate each time DNA evidence clears someone who had been jailed, to try to avoid wrongful convictions in future cases.