Harris County: A New Equilibrium?

 Posted on November 07, 2012 in Uncategorized

Murray Newman has a rundown of the outcomes of Harris County's criminal judicial elections.

The races were closer than they've been since I started practicing law and paying attention to judicial elections. Where the Republicans used to sweep and the Democrats swept all but one bench in 2008 the Republicans captured only two thirds of the nine criminal-district (felony) court benches.

I was glad for the Democratic near-sweep in 2008 because it ended fourteen years of Harris County Republican Party hegemony. I'm relieved that the results were more balanced this time around because we're not yet seeing the beginning of Harris County Democratic Party hegemony. (A pox on both their hegemonies.)

The three races in which Democrats hung on were the 174th, in which Ruben Guerrero beat Robert Summerlin; the 178th, in which David Mendoza beat Roger Bridgwater; and the 339th, in which Maria Jackson beat Brad Hart.

Murray calls that last race a "true shocker." Brad Hart was a good candidate. I think Brad might make a good judge. But Maria Jackson is a good judge.

I learned after the 2008 election (when I was campaign treasurer for Shawna Reagin, who was a tremendous disappointment on the bench, and who lost to Stacey Bond yesterday) not to have great expectations for new judges. So I'd hate to throw away a perfectly good judge for the sake of a speculative improvement.

Meanwhile, Ruben Guerrero is a terrible judge. I don't know Robert Summerlin, but I've talked to people whom I respect who know him and think he would be a bad judge. And while we oughtn't throw away good judges, we ought to discard terrible judges on general principle, even when we don't know we're replacing them with better, pour encourager les autres.

Jackson (who is good, but possibly not the best candidate) and Guerrero (who is bad, but possibly not the worst candidate) both won. I suspect that my feelings about the 174th mirror Murray's feelings about the 339th.

So. We've lost a couple of good judges or candidates, lost a couple of bad judges or candidates, kept a couple of good judges, and acquired (or, in the case of Brock Thomas in the 338th, reacquired) some new judges with the potential to do a good job. What's the broader significance of the new presidential-election-year balance of political power in Harris County?

As long as the balance of power between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in Harris County lasts, races will be decided on things other than party affiliation, which can be a good thing.

"Merit," for example, is a thing other than party affiliation; if the straight-ticket voters cancel each other out, we'll have de facto nonpartisan judicial elections. In nonpartisan judicial elections the people familiar with the races and the candidates decide the races and the better candidates are more likely to win. This possibility will motivate the parties to seek out competent candidates rather than political hacks. The voters will benefit.

Or maybe not.

More likely, political consultants will benefit: Candidates desperate for votes will, like lawyers desperate for business, throw money at any charlatan who talks a good marketing game. (I've met some of Houston's political consultants; they make legal marketing hucksters look honest by contrast.)

Murray Newman will benefit (and I might too): where straight-party voting doesn't decide the races, the opinions of credible people who know the issues will carry more weight. (After I started writing this, I had lunch with Norm, who out of the blue made the same argument: voters who care ask the participants for their recommendations. Norm can bring four or five votes; I can bring hundreds. Murray can bring thousands, but many of them are sockpuppets.)

Maybe justice will benefit. Judges who can no longer count on being reelected just because of the letter in parentheses after their name should-and may, and I hope will-start working a little harder at being fair. I'm not saying it'll cure Judge Bipolar or Judge NPD (about whom more in coming days), but it might motivate them to start taking their meds more regularly.

Here's another interesting thing about straight-ticket voters cancelling each other out: it means that third-party candidates might, without winning, affect the outcomes of county judicial elections. A Green Party candidate might siphon off votes that would have otherwise gone to the Democratic candidate, and a Libertarian Party candidate might do the same for a Republican candidate (not because Republicans are necessarily more libertarian than Democrats, but because Republicans seem more likely to self-identify as libertarian than Democrats). This could add an exciting twist to elections that for too long were ho-hum "here come the Republicans again" affairs.

Speaking of which, what about the off-year elections, when the other thirteen felony courts and fifteen misdemeanor courts are at stake? In 2010 the Republicans all won with 55-57% of the vote. I expect to see smaller numbers in 2014, but not the kind of tossups that will make merit a factor. Maybe we'll be there by 2018.

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