February 12, 2014
by Wallace Jefferson, Lisa Kaufman – Special to the American Statesman
The judiciary plays a vital role in our democracy, yet when we arrive at the ballot box, many of us have little knowledge about the candidates for judicial office. This information deficit is pronounced in large urban areas like Austin, where as many as 16 judicial races appear on the ballot.
Rather than wrestle with this maze of judges, many voters simply skip the section of the ballot devoted to judges. For example, in the 2012 general election, nearly 59 percent of registered Texas voters cast a ballot for a presidential candidate, but only 44 percent voted for a candidate on the Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the court that literally decides life and death.
Judges often have a bigger impact on the lives of average Texans than even the president or the governor. Our judges ensure that the law is fairly imposed on our citizens; they decide who will have custody of your children; they guard against wrongful attempts to foreclose on your home. A judge’s signature on an order can end your business or save it. We often hear about the importance of our constitutional rights. They mean nothing if there is no impartial tribunal standing guard.
So, even though it’s not easy, we must take the time to elect qualified judges.
Courts exist not to perpetuate the judicial branch for its own sake but to ensure that the conflicts human beings encounter, whether criminal or civil, are adjudicated in a neutral forum, at an efficient price, producing fair outcomes.
The primaries are right around the corner—early voting runs from Feb. 18 through Feb. 28. The primary election is March 4.
We urge everyone to do their homework and be sure to vote for judicial candidates who are truly the most qualified. In our view, there are some very specific characteristics that excellent judges share. The best judges, those whose tenure on the bench has changed Texans’ lives for the better, are impartial, committed to public service, nonpartisan, empathetic, fair and extremely knowledgeable about the law.
How do you find out about judicial candidates’ backgrounds and qualifications? The Texas Civil Justice League has created a website with in-depth, unbiased information about judicial candidates — www.TexasJudges.org. You may also refer to information published by the League of Women Voters. You may know of groups that you trust who endorse judicial candidates. All of these are good options for information.
The Texas Civil Justice League website includes video interviews with several prominent experts on the Texas judicial system discussing the important role that judges play in our lives, qualifications of excellent judges and where to look for information about the candidates.
Our courts are the final line of protection for individual rights. They provide access to justice and protect us from abuses of power by corporations or the government. They also protect our most basic constitutional rights. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to learn about the candidates who are running for judicial offices and cast our votes for those who are most qualified. Please encourage your friends, family members and colleagues to do the same.
Texas deserves qualified judges, and your vote counts!
Jefferson is a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. He is a partner with Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP. Kaufman is senior counsel for the Texas Civil Justice League and a partner with Davis Kaufman PLLC.
To hear former justices Dale Wainwright, Tom Phillips and Harriet O’Neill discuss the importance of voting in judicial races and the characteristics of a qualified judge, go to the Texas Civil Justice League’s YouTube channel: