Legally Speaking: Know Before You Vote-The Judicial Elections

John G. Browning Oct. 27, 2010, 8:13am

Politics is a funny thing. A clown was recently elected to the Brazilian legislature, and before we Americans begin laughing at that silly notion, consider some of the following facts.

The Democratic nominee for Senate in South Carolina says he would create jobs by employing people to make a line of action figures that feature himself; in California's GOP Senate primary, the Carly Fiorina campaign ran an add featuring a demon sheep.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for Senate from Rhode Island has had to run adds announcing that she's not a witch, someone by the name of Elvis Presley is running for governor of Arkansas (thank you very much), and Nevada election officials have implemented a rule requiring anyone wearing a chicken suit to stay at least 100 feet away from a polling place.

By comparison, judicial elections are generally boring, low-key affairs that don't attract nearly as much attention (or votes) as races that appear higher up on the ballot.

That doesn't mean that such races are lacking in importance, however; when you consider elections whose results can have far-reaching implications and directly impact our daily lives, contests for judicial office (particularly appellate benches) are right at the top.

Because of this, and because of the relative lack of resources providing guidance to voters about judicial candidates, we're happy to bring you some information about the candidates running for seats on the Texas Supreme Court and the Dallas Court of Appeals.

In the race for Place 9 on the Texas Supreme Court, the judge currently holding the seat is Justice Eva Guzman, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009 to fill a vacancy, and who is now running for election to this spot outright. Prior to her appointment, Justice Guzman was a trial court judge in Houston from 1999 to 2002, and an appellate justice on Houston's 14th Court of Appeals from 2002 to 2009.

Justice Guzman is opposed by Democratic candidate Blake Bailey, a prominent plaintiffs' personal injury attorney from Tyler who has no prior judicial experience, as well as by Libertarian candidate Jack Armstrong.

The contest for Place 5 on the Texas Supreme Court pits Republican incumbent Paul Green (who has served on the court since 2004) against Democrat Bill Moody and Libertarian Tom Oxford.

Green has extensive judicial experience, having served as a justice on the San Antonio Court of Appeals from 1995 to 2004. So does Judge Moody, who for the past 23 years has served as the judge of the 34th District Court in El Paso.

Mr. Oxford is an experienced attorney, but lacks his opponents' judicial track record.

Place 3 on the Texas Supreme Court is another interesting race. After weathering a crowded Republican primary with five other opponents (four of whom were sitting appellate judges) and winning a run off, Debra Lehrmann was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court earlier this year.

Justice Lehrmann was a family court judge of the 360th District Court in Tarrant County, where over the course of 23 years she built a reputation as an authority on family law and even helped draft Texas family law. She has also served as chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section.

Her Democratic opponent is Houston's Jim Sharp. After running for (and losing) the Court of Appeals in 2004 and 2006, Sharp was elected to a seat on Houston's First Court of Appeals in 2008, where he has served ever since. Before becoming a judge, Justice Sharp was a solo practitioner in private practice for about 20 years. The Libertarian candidate in this race is attorney/project manager William Strange.

On Dallas' District Court of Appeals, Chief Justice Carlyn Wright is unopposed on the ballot. The widely-respected jurist was elevated to the position of chief justice by Gov. Perry upon the retirement of longtime Justice Linda Thomas.

The first African-American Chief justice of any Texas intermediate appellate court, Chief Justice Wright wasted no time in improving the efficiency of the court. The Dallas Court of Appeals disposed of 1,629 cases between Sept. 1, 2009, and July 2 of this year, earning it the highest disposition rate in the state.

Place 4 on the Dallas Court of Appeals is currently held by Republican Lana Myers, who was appointed by Gov. Perry to fill the seat vacated by Carolyn Wright's elevation to chief justice. Justice Myers had previously served as a Dallas County criminal court judge for nearly 15 years. She boasts the endorsement of the Dallas Morning News, of her "impressive pedigree" and "thoughtful legal skills and temperament."

Her opponent is Democrat Bonnie Lee Goldstein, who currently serves as a municipal court judge for Royse City and the city Cockrell Hill. In addition to her experience presiding over matters like speeding tickets, Judge Goldstein points to an extensive background in municipal law during her nearly 20 years of being a lawyer.

Place 5 on the Dallas Court of Appeals has been held by Justice Robert Fillmore since his May 2009 appointment by Gov. Perry. During his tenure, the judge was endorsed by the Dallas Morning News for his "right combination" of "book smarts and practical experience." Fillmore has authored over 100 opinions and was involved in 200 more.

In addition to endorsements by the Dallas Morning News and other organizations, Justice Fillmore touts his performance in the State Bar of Texas Judicial Poll, which show a clear majority of responding attorneys preferring him to his opponent. That opponent is Lawrence Praeger, a sole practitioner from Dallas who specializes in family law and who has been practicing since 1981.

Because of strict ethical prohibitions against commenting on issues that might come before them, judges and candidates for judicial office are often at something of a disadvantage when it comes to getting their "message" out. But each of the candidates for this spot on the Dallas Court of Appeals have made public statements that provide insight into their respective judicial philosophies.

In campaign literature and speeches, Justice Fillmore has said "I believe in judicial restraint; I interpret and apply the law as written and do not legislate from the bench."

When the Dallas Morning News's editorial advisory board inquired about which kind of judge he would emulate, Mr. Praeger wasted no time in responding.

He singled out Dallas family court judge Tena Callahan who received widespread media attention for her ruling that she could preside over the divorce of a same-sex couple in Dallas who had been married in another state that did recognize such unions. Judge Callahan, was later reversed by an appellate court that noted Texas law does not provide for either same-sex marriage or divorce, and she was criticized for what many felt was judicial activism.

On Nov. 2, don't skip over the judicial races: "educate yourself about the candidates."

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