Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pre-Trial Services & Bail Reform Mean Bad News for Incumbent Judges

For whatever reason candidates for a range of offices in next year's primary have been coming out of the woodwork since before the last round of municipal elections were even over. And now the rumblings of judicial candidates has started as well with news of a couple of incumbent judges likely to square off for a seat on the Court of Appeals.

Gone are the days of the traditional Labor Day kick-off. 

I also saw a really cool episode of Last Week Tonight recently that is pretty timely. 

This primary is already being called the Year of the Woman because of the Hillary factor on the Democratic side, which is the only side that matters in local judicial races.

That spells big trouble for most of the incumbent judges. 

Let me explain why. A while back, Commissioner's Court said the judges were out of compliance with the Fair Defense Act that was passed in 2001. The judges defiantly went to Commissioner's Court, proudly thumped their chests about how none of the members of the Court were attorneys and therefore didn't know what they were talking about, spoke about division of powers, and one judge even went so far as to basically ask the court who do they think they are?

And then the State of Texas came in, audited the system, and agreed with the Commissioner's Court. The judges were out of compliance for like a decade! You'd think a bunch of lawyers would be familiar with the law rather than fighting the issue when it was brought to their attention. The fact that it took the State of Texas to get the judges to comply is problematic for the incumbent judges. 

Also, there was the indigent defense fee stand-off in which the judges unilaterally implemented a fee increase that was characterized by the El Paso Times Editorial Board as " abuse of taxpayers."

The Editorial Board also characterized the raising of the fee, that the judges ultimately delayed, as "the judges giving the back of their hand to Commissioners Court. Or perhaps just their middle finger."


Getting back to the pre-trial services stuff. Judges and lawyers are really smart and great at articulating points of the law. But they are terrible campaigners and have the worst sense of public perception of just about anyone. The reforms that have been started by Commissioner's Court are part of a national movement of reforms geared not only at ensuring that the poor have the same access to justice as anyone else, but also as a cost-saving measure. 

This video gives a thumbnail in layman's terms of why these reforms are necessary. And most of the incumbent judges didn't want the reforms. 

Most of the time there are pretty much no substantive issues for judicial candidates to talk about during a campaign so voters who elect the judges basically only have to go on a gut feeling about a judicial candidate. 

Until now. 

Now they have an issue to consider. That would be all fine and dandy for the incumbent judges if they were talking to a room full of members of the local bar association, but they aren't. They are going to be talking to voters.

And while the vast majority of the electorate aren't attorneys or have the familiarity with the legal system that the judges do, they do understand issues involving taxes. If these incumbent judges end up with opponents that take them on regarding the reforms and make a fiscal argument to voters, the judges are going to be in a bad spot especially because based on the sentiment I've seen of public comments from the judiciary at the time of the debate, they basically feel like it doesn't matter what the costs are associated with the justice system.

Which as a matter of principal may be entirely true.

But you try telling that to a voter as you sit on a tax-payer funded chair that literally costs several hundreds of dollars while they face increasing taxes from the city, county, school districts and community college board. 

And God help the incumbent judges that face a Latina in an election with a spike in turnout for Hillary. 

So for the first time in a long time, people will actually be paying attention to judicial candidates more so in this election than in previous elections. 

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