McKeithen holds on to seat as chief of appeals court

David Yates Mar. 6, 2008, 6:00am

The in-house Republican duel for the chief seat on the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals was a tight one, with the incumbent, Chief Justice Steve McKeithen, obtaining nearly 53 percent of the vote.

Justice McKeithen's challenger, fellow Republican Jay Wright, lost a pricy battle as the Conroe-area attorney had launched a frenzy of televised campaign ads in the weeks leading up to the March 4 primary.

Wright told The Record in a January interview that he was running for the seat in hopes of bringing his "originalist philosophy" to the bench � a belief that courts must return to the U.S. Constitution when evaluating cases.

The Ninth District justices hear civil and criminal appeals from state district courts in 10 counties: Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery, Newton, Orange, Polk, San Jacinto and Tyler. The chief justice has a six year term.

In Jefferson County, Justice McKeithen collected 2,747 votes or 52.65 percent, while Wright grabbed 2,470 votes or 47.35 percent.

Overall, Justice McKeithen got 25,593 votes or 52.93 percent. Wright was not far behind, gathering 22,755 votes or 47.06 percent.

With his party's nomination secure, Justice McKeithen can now focus fully on his judicial duties, since no Democratic challenger sought the chief seat.

In a March 6 telephone interview, Justice McKeithen told The Record that he will work to continue the positive up-swing the appeals court has been enjoying the last five years.

"I believe we (the justices on the Texas Ninth Court of Appeals) have a great chemistry � and I'm glad we will keep (the court intact)," Justice McKeithen told The Record.


First elected to the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals in 2002, Chief Justice McKeithen, 55, is a family man with extensive civil and criminal experience and has played an instrumental role in turning around the "distressing trend" of reversals by the Texas Supreme Court and adding a fourth justice - "without raising taxes" - to Beaumont's appeals court during his time on the bench.

Before Justice McKeithen's arrival, the court often saw the bulk of its decisions reversed by the Supreme Court and had become one of the most reversed courts in Texas.

The court's high U-turn rate was one of two reasons leading Justice McKeithen to leave his private practice in Montgomery County and run for chief justice of the state's Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in 2002.

His other reason: petition the Texas Legislature for an additional justice seat.

"(The Ninth Court of Appeals) is one of Texas' busiest courts," said Justice McKeithen told the Record in a January interview, adding that because of the high volume of cases coming in, the court had to transfer cases to other courts. "They went everywhere, all over the state."

In 2003, Justice McKeithen worked with a state senator to add a fourth justice. The fruits of their combined labor yielded a new seat on the appeals court.

"And we did it without raising taxes," Justice McKeithen said. "We are now transferring fewer than 10 percent of our cases."

More lawsuits are filed in Jefferson County per capita than the other nine surrounding counties in this district.

Before venturing into the judicial realm, Justice McKeithen received a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Houston and in 1984 received a doctor of jurisprudence degree from the South Texas College of Law. He went into private practice before joining the Montgomery County Attorney's Office and spent 10 years as Civil Division chief.

Justice McKeithen has been married to his wife Sherry for the past 37 years, who is an 8th grade math teacher. They reside in Montgomery County and have two children who are currently attending college.

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