Herewith I present a confession of sorts: This custom in Texas of electing judges on a partisan basis has always baffled me. In particular, Texas has more than 500 district courts: Some of these courts cover entire counties where the population is relatively sparse; metropolitan counties have multiple district courts within them. Here in Harris County, we now have 60 district courts of various types: Civil, Criminal, Family, and Juvenile.
The weird part is that these "districts" in metropolitan counties do not have any corresponding territories. All Harris County voters have all 60 district courts on their ballots, but fortunately not every election. (NOTE: Several reputable websites still say 59, but a new District 507 Family Court just came into existence within the last few years for a rapidly growing Harris County. I recently met the presiding judge in 507, Republican Alyssa Lemkuil.) Terms for district court judges last four years, and elections are staggered. Harris County has just 24 benches up for election this year, with the other 36 to be contested in 2018.
There is also no way to tell by the number of the district what type of cases the court hears. Some of them even sub-specialize: One criminal court may try cases of violent crime, while another deals with property crimes.
The Lone Star State's judicial system is so incredibly byzantine, I have never taken the time or effort to figure it out. We have County Courts-at-Law. We have the fourteen Courts of Appeals, which are geographically based, and two of which (numbers 1 and 14) are in Harris and surrounding counties—go figure. There are Probate Courts, which...I give up.
Fortunately, people like Charles Kuffner have sufficient wonkitude to keep up with these courts and who presides over them. Chuck sends out interview questionnaires for candidates at all levels, including district courts, and somehow stays awake through the process of copying and pasting their responses.
Inspired by Chuck, and by talking with judicial candidates at the early voting stations, I have looked into the system more deeply than I ever have before. I don't like it any more than I did, but I understand it better. Although this comes just a few days before Non-Early Voting Day, and 34 years after I cast my first partisan votes...well, better late than never?
In the table below, the Next Election column is a pretty good indicator of whether a given bench is occupied by a Republican or a Democrat:
- 2016 = Democrat (i.e., last elected with President Obama in 2012)
- 2018 = Republican (i.e., last elected in 2014, when turnout was shitty and Republicans ran the table).
(To be continued in subsequent posts.)