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History of Reform Efforts: Texas

Unsuccessful Reform Efforts

The Texas Civil judicial Council proposed an amendment to the judicial article of the Texas Constitution, calling for merit selection of all Texas judges. The proposal was given wide distribution but was not adopted by the legislature.

A proposed amendment to the judicial article, drafted by the Texas Civil Judicial Council, the state bar committee on administration of justice, and the advisory committee on revision of judicial selection of the Texas Constitution, was submitted to members of the Texas bar for approval or disapproval. The proposed amendment called not only for merit selection of appellate judges, with the option for merit selection of trial court judges, but also for merger of the supreme court and court of criminal appeals and centralized administration of the entire judiciary by the supreme court. Perhaps because of the broadness of the proposal, it was opposed by a majority of bar members who voted. In 1949, bar members had favored adoption of a Missouri Plan for Texas by a two-to-one margin, and in 1953, bar members had supported a proposed judicial article that called simply for merit selection of appellate judges and the option for merit selection of trial court judges.

In 1971, Chief Justice Robert Calvert formed the task force for court improvement to draft a proposed revision to the judicial article. During the fall of 1972, eight citizens' conferences were held throughout the state to provide a forum for discussion of the proposal. Revisions were made by the task force, and the final product was presented to the 1973 session of the legislature. The revised proposal called for merit selection of judges. If merit selection was rejected by the voters, a proposal for nonpartisan judicial elections would then be submitted to voters. The legislature ultimately rejected the proposal. Also in 1972, voters approved the establishment of a constitutional revision commission. The commission proposed sweeping modernization of the Texas Constitution, including merit selection of appellate judges. The constitutional revision commission also suggested that the alternative of nonpartisan elections be submitted to a vote, but the merit selection plan was its primary proposal.

Proposals by the constitutional review commission for both merit selection of judges and nonpartisan elections were rejected. Over the next four legislative sessions, more than fifteen proposals for merit selection and nonpartisan elections were also unsuccessful.

Chief Justice John Hill formed the Committee of 100 to examine judicial selection and judicial campaign financing in Texas. The committee was composed of citizens appointed by Chief Justice Hill, the speaker of the house of representatives, and the lieutenant governor. The committee proposed the so-called "Texas Plan." In its initial formulation, the Texas Plan was similar in most respects to the Missouri Plan but was later revised to describe a merit election system. The Texas Plan engendered organized opposition in the form of the Committee of 250, composed primarily of Republican and Democratic Party county chairpersons who favored continuation of partisan elections. Plaintiff lawyers and organized labor opposed the Texas Plan as well. Six supreme court justices also joined the Committee of 250. Chief Justice Hill resigned from the supreme court in 1987, established the Committee for Merit Election, and formed Merit PAC to support candidates interested in reform. More recently, former Chief Justice Hill has established Texans for Judicial Excellence.

Texas legislature passed a resolution creating a joint select committee on the judiciary to examine the state's judicial selection process and make recommendations for change. Released in 1988, the committee's final report called for a merit election system for appellate judges, where a screening commission recommended candidates to the governor, the governor nominated a candidate to be confirmed by the senate, and the candidate stood in an initial confirmation election and in retention elections thereafter; a nonpartisan election system for trial court judges; elimination of straight-ticket voting in judicial elections; lower campaign contribution limits and a shorter time period for accepting campaign contributions; and voter information pamphlets.

SJR 26 and SB 313 called for gubernatorial appointment with senate confirmation and retention elections for all appellate judges and for nonpartisan elections and retention elections of district court judges. The bill passed the senate but died in committee in the house.

The Texas Committee on Judicial Efficiency, based on recommendations from the judicial selection task force, advocated lengthening the terms of appellate judges to eight years and trial court judges to six years, and an "appoint-elect-retain" plan for selecting judges.

Legislation (HJR 69 and HB 1175) calling for nonpartisan election of appellate judges passed the house. Three proposals (SB 409/SJR 23; SB 621/SJR 25; SB 628/SJR 26) relating to the appointment of appellate judges, nonpartisan election of district court judges, and elimination of straight-ticket voting in judicial elections were reported favorably out of committee in the senate but then stalled.

SJR 9 and SB 59 calling for an appointment-retention system for appellate judges passed the senate but died in committee in the house near the end of the session.

Governor Bush vetoed a bill that would have required the secretary of state to provide internet judicial voter guides.

Legislation (SJR 3 and SB 129) calling for gubernatorial appointment of judges of the supreme court and court of criminal appeals was approved by the senate and by the house judicial affairs committee, but the legislative session ended before the house took further action.

The senate approved legislation (SB 794) calling for gubernatorial appointment and retention of judges of the supreme court and court of criminal appeals, but the measure stalled in the house.

In recent years, Representatives Pete Gallego and Robert Junell and Senators Robert Duncan and Rodney Ellis have been very active in introducing measures related to appointment of judges, nonpartisan judicial elections, elimination of straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, and public financing of judicial elections. With few exceptions, none of these measures have received floor votes. One obstacle to judicial selection reform in Texas is the fact that the Texas legislature only meets for six months every two years.