Short on justice

Quanah Parker is the Libertarian candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2.

It's slim pickin's for Democrats on the state judicial slate

Texas Democratic Party Chief of Staff Mike Lavigne believes state Supreme Court candidate and longtime Democratic activist David Van Os can win his race for Place 9. Most of the major newspapers have endorsed Van Os' opponent, incumbent Scott Brister, despite conflict-of-interest missteps since his 2003 appointment by Governor Rick Perry, demurring that the 54-year-old Van Os "seems more interested in advocacy than impartiality and opposes judicial reform." (Read: He never signed onto the tort reform bandwagon.)

"That's just hooey," says Levigne. "I think the real problem is that those guys on the bench are just too comfy and cozy with the corporations they're supposed to be overseeing. That's the number one qualification: your independence."

Levigne is one of the architects of the Democrats' Take Back Texas campaign, a six-year plan to return democratic majorities to the statehouse, Texas' Congressional seats, and eventually, the courts. This year's efforts focus on 13 state representative races; the plan two years from now is to win the governorship and other key statewide offices.

In off years, Take Back Texas will focus on legislative initiatives (including a response to the Republicans' controversial redistricting). That leaves the judiciary for years five and six, which seems a long way off if you're a Bexar County Democrat contemplating a ballot with nine unopposed Republicans running for seats at the district and state levels. Two of the contenders for Supreme Court seats are Libertarians, not Democrats, so if you only count red and blue (Libertarians not having much of a statewide winning record) you're up to 11 unopposed Republicans. By contrast, there are only four unopposed Democratic candidates for those same courts. Two Republicans are unopposed for Places 6 and 7 on the 4th Court of Appeals, whose Chief Justice is Alma Lopez, one of two Democrats on the court.

San Antonio Democrat David Van Os is opposing Republican Scott Brister for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court.
But it's at the statewide level that options really narrow. J.R. Molina, the single Democratic candidate for the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, spent the first part of this week on a 16-city Take Back Texas bus tour of the Valley, and, says Levigne, "David's been going around the state talking to anybody who will listen." But if Molina and Van Os succeed in breaking their respective party barriers, they will spend a lot of their time writing minority opinions.

"To be perfectly honest, it would be great to have a Democrat on either of those," says Editor Byron LaMasters, but, "It wouldn't affect decisions." Which raises the question why, during an election year when the recent Enron scandal has increased public skepticism of corporations and when vice presidential candidate John Edwards' career as a very successful trial lawyer has hardly made a blip on the screen, Take Back Texas isn't fielding more statewide judicial candidates.

Justices elected to the state Supreme Court serve staggered six-year terms. While we tend to think of judicial legacy solely in terms of a justice's impact on the interpretation of the law through rulings and opinions, judges also become part of an important political resource for governors and presidents. Before a judge becomes a credible candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court or even the influential U.S. District Courts, they often serve on a lower court. Especially given the contemporary evasion of so-called litmus test questions for nominees, candidates' written opinions are often the only real clues senators have to their view of the law.

Consider two former Texas Supreme Court members who have fared well under President George W. Bush: Alberto Gonzales and Priscilla Owen. In 1999, Bush appointed Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court where he became Chief Justice; when Bush was elected to the presidency, Gonzales became Chief White House counsel. He might emerge as a nominee for the nation's highest court in a second Bush administration - and it's his tenure on Texas' top civil court that gives him credence.

Democrat Larry Noll is running against Republican Lori Massey for Judge of the 288th District.
Owen, who was elected to a second term with the Texas Supreme Court in 2000, missed her chance at early retirement from the Texas bench when Senate Democrats blocked her nomination to the influential 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Gonzales himself had characterized Owen as an activist judge, and her record in parental consent cases, in particular, made her a high priority for progressive opposition.

Incidentally, it was the 5th Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Texas that ruled against the plaintiffs in the suits following the Republican strong-arm redistricting of 2003. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the District Court to revisit that ruling in light of an April 2004 Pennsylvania case that left room for challenges to redistricting maps that were overly influenced by politics. Because the Supreme Court declined to force the state to hold the current elections based on the old map while the legal challenges wound through the courts, any Republican gains made in contested districts could be invalidated when the District Court rules again.

The moral of the story for this election, however, is that today's state court justice could be tomorrow's federal judge, and the way Texas' judiciary has been stacking up, a Democratic president won't have much of a farm team in the Lone Star State. In that respect, while it will be another two years before Molina and Van Os can look forward to like-minded company if they win, their names will begin to circulate among those eligible for a federal bench.

Nonetheless, statewide judicial races are a low priority among activists. "One of the reasons Democrats aren't contenders in four out of six of these (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals races), is if you look at the statewide returns from 2000 and 2002, Democrats have been shut out," says LaMasters. "I suppose if David Van Os' opponent is indicted for something, David Van Os might win," but you can't "change traditional voting patterns in the state overnight."

So, while six years might sound like an eternity, LaMasters and Levigne say it's the only way to accomplish TBT's stated goal of making Texas blue. "Running for statewide office is a huge endeavor, and it takes money," Levigne points out. "You can't just pull candidates for statewide office out of thin air." It's also a matter of resources for the organization - their current budget is supporting 13 races this season. TBT is also hoping that some success in those races will breed more success. "After this election, we'll begin targeting judges' races in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio."

By Elaine Wolff


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