The most frequently asked question I get this time of year: How do I decide which judges to vote for? Well, here’s my answer!
So we made it to election day! Congrats on another awkward family Thanksgiving (I’m fleeing to Canada). But I promised at the start that this would not be a political blog. And it won’t. Instead, this post is to address the question I get asked most this time of year: How do I know which judges to vote for?
Different states handle electing or appointing judges differently. The Federal judiciary is appointed and confirmed (another topic I will not be touching on . . . ). In some states, judges are appointed by the governor and then confirmed through an election without an opponent. Some judges run without party affiliation. In Texas, judges are appointed by the governor for the remainder of a term, and then they run in a partisan election. This can cause . . . problems. Especially in years where a party (or both) is (are) particularly fired up. So before we all run out to vote straight ticket, I thought I’d take one last try to make a plea for moderation.
First, I think it’s important to understand what a judge does, especially a trial court judge. Trial court judges don’t write judicial opinions, which means their decisions don’t have precedential value. Meaning, in plain English, other judges (even the same judge), doesn’t have to use the same reasoning on every case. They aren’t making law that will be binding on anyone, unlike say . . . the Supreme Court of the United States. Instead, trial court judges make sure that trials are fair. They make sure the lawyers follow the evidentiary and procedural rules (yes, it is as sexy as it sounds). In my humble opinion, granted I’ve only been involved in half a dozen trials, the most important trait in a trial court judge is experience. Democrats and Republicans aren’t going to preside over cases all that differently; it’s about experience.
Now, the trial court is all about trying to figure out what happened and how those facts match up with the law. If one of the parties feels like they weren’t given a fair opportunity to present their case, or they believe the trial court judge messed up in applying the law, that party can appeal. This next court level, typically referred to as the courts of appeals or appellate courts, look at the trial (or other rulings by the trial court), and decide whether the trial court misapplied the law or the rules. This can sometimes require interpretation of the law, which can get political. Judges from the right tend to stick to the actual words written by the state congress and apply it without expansion, whereas judges on the left tend to look at the spirit of what they think the state congress meant and apply the law with that in mind. These ideologies aren’t hard and fast like they are for legislators, but there is some truth in the assumption. And then, if one party feels like the appellate court has made a mistake, the matter gets appealed to what is typically called the state’s supreme court. The state supreme court then gives the definitive interpretation of a law until the state’s congress amends it.
So now we understand the purpose of all of these judges (and how party sometimes is more about money for your campaign than actual beliefs), let’s talk about making your decision. Judges will have bios like any other candidate. They aren’t allowed to say in advance how they’ll rule on an issue, but you can find out their level of experience. You can also find recommendations through your local bar association. I know, I know [insert joke here]. But we do appear in front of these judges and deal with their rulings daily, and we practice with or against their opponents. We know these people and their level of ethics and competence. For the most part, lawyers would rather a good judge than an easy win on a case. And lawyers also fill out surveys on the judges yearly. You can Google your city name and “bar association” and probably find the results of those surveys. Also, some groups of attorneys do issue lists of endorsements of judicial candidates. For instance, the Harris County Association of Women Attorneys interviews all of the judicial candidates and publishes their recommendations.
So today, as you’re standing in line at the polls, consider Googling the recommendation of your local bar association. Our justice system, especially at the trial court level, should be more about competence than political rhetoric. Please.
If you’re in Harris County, there are two great references I always recommend:
- Houston Association of Women Attorneys: Their recommendations are available here (https://awahouston.org/materials-temp-name/current-judicial-endorsements/). I know people that have been on the committee. They interview every candidate they can and make well-reasoned recommendations.
- Houston Bar Association Judicial Poll: The Houston Bar Association polls the attorneys that appear before the current judges, which gives y’all a chance to see our feelings on sitting judges. The poll also includes opinions of their opponents, who are people in our field that we have interactions with as well. It’s here: https://www.hba.org/judicial-poll-results/.