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Federal Trial Tests Statewide Election of Texas Judges

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 14, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judicial elections work a little differently Texas, and that's become a problem.

For 150 years, Texans have been voting for judges in statewide elections. It is one of seven states that require candidates to run as members of a particular party.

The results? A lot of white males and only a handful of minorities ever make it to the highest courts in Texas. That could change if the plaintiffs prevail in a federal trial in Corpus Christi.

Judicial Accountability

The Latino plaintiffs argue that statewide elections for the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals discriminate and violate the Voting Rights Act. They say the at-large elections deny Latinos -- who make up a fourth of the eligible voters -- the right to elect a candidate of their choice.

They want Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos, an Obama appointee, to order Texas to make single-member districts for the courts. By doing so, it would create at least two Latino-majority voting districts.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says, however, that the state has the right to structure its government and to make judges accountable to all voters.

"Dividing the [courts] into single-member districts would create regional judges with smaller electoral bases and decreased accountability to voters across the state," the attorney general's office contends.

Voting Rights Act

Charles "Rocky" Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law, says states choose their judges in different ways. In 22 states, they are elected. Others appoint their judges, and some elected judges are subject to retention elections.

In Texas, the judges are elected by party affiliation. That basically means they are Republicans.

"The candidates that are losing in the primaries...are losing in the primary because of their party affiliation, not because of their race," Rhodes says. "And the Voting Rights Act doesn't protect Democrats versus Republicans."

Even as the trial gets underway, a related matter is already on appeal. Ramos said the state's voter ID law was unconstitutional and issued an injunction against it, but the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that order pending appeal.

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