The New Judges: How Bad?

 Posted on November 06, 2008 in Uncategorized

There's much gnashing of teeth among the prosecutors and other right-wingers down at the courthouse this morning about the Democratic near-sweep of the nine open felony court benches.

Those who have suddenly realized that partisan election of judges is not a good thing should consider...

First, that this was not the first partisan election of judges ever. The judges who were replaced were themselves elected in partisan elections, if at all (Judge Bridgwater was appointed; this was his first reelection campaign. They weren't chosen by the voters in the first place for their judicial qualifications. (You're upset by unqualified judges being chosen by straight-ticket voters? Welcome to my world for the last 16 years!)

Second, that all of the replaced judges started their judicial careers with no judicial experience. (Tautological but true.)

Third, that when we discuss the new judges, we're not talking about a bunch of neophytes. Here's how long the newly elected Harris County criminal district court judges have been practicing law:

  1. Ruben Guerrero (174th District Court) – 32 years;

  2. Shawna Reagin (176th) – 19 years;

  3. Kevin Fine (177th) – 14 year;

  4. David Mendoza (178th) – 29 years;

  5. Randy Roll (179th) – 20 years;

  6. Herb Ritchie (337th) – 34 years;

  7. Hazel Jones (338th) – 12 years; and

  8. Maria Jackson (339th) – 6 years.

(Mekisha Walker, who ran unsuccessfully for the 351st District Court, has been practicing law for eight years.)

And here's how long the seven ousted incumbents had been practicing law when they first took the bench:

  1. Brian Rains (176th) – 12 years;

  2. Devon Anderson (177th) – 13 years;

  3. Roger Bridgwater (178th) – 28 years;

  4. Mike Wilkinson (179th) – 14 years;

  5. Don Stricklin (337th) – 26 years;

  6. Tommy Thomas (338th) – 9 years;

  7. Caprice Cosper (339th) – 9 years.

(Mark Kent Ellis, who kept his job, first took the bench in the 351st when he had been practicing for nine or 10 years; Bill Moore, who was running against Ruben Guerrero for the open 174th District Court bench, has been practicing for 20.)

So the new judges, on average, have more experience as lawyers than the ousted judges had when they became judges. A couple (three, if you count traffic court as "judicial") of the new judges even have past judicial experience, which none of the ousted judges had when they became judges. Yes, some of the ousted judges have more judicial experience now, but if time on the bench were an overriding judicial qualification, we would be appointing our judges for life.

The other thing that all of the new judges have is more defense experience and less prosecutorial experience than the old judges. This apparently frightens the right wing, who have trouble conceiving of anyone other than a prosecutor being qualified to be a judge. They think they're going to have to "babysit" the new judges to get them on the right track.

The truth is that employment in the DA's Office doesn't qualify a person to be judge: it gives a person neither a moral compass nor a spine. Most ADAs don't know a whole lot of law (kinda like most defense lawyers don't know a whole lot of law). They aren't qualified to babysit a new judge. All they are qualified to do is carry out Office doctrine.

So, fourth, the tooth-gnashers should remember that, much as they wish it were otherwise, the bench is not supposed to be part of the DA's Office.

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