Do democracy a favor and research Texas judges before voting

Copyright 2018 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a commentary on October 24, 2018 in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle)

     There are voters who’ll give their anticipated votes little attention and simply vote a straight-party ticket. That’s their right, of course, but in so doing they’ve given up their right to vote for particular candidates. They’ve foreclosed any comparison of the candidates’ qualifications.

     At the other end of the spectrum are the meticulous ― possibly obsessive ― voters who study the issues and candidates exhaustively before deciding on their choices.

     Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between, using an assortment of ways to learn enough about most candidates to satisfy ourselves that we’re making informed choices.

     What may be disappointing to those who do their homework before entering the voting booth is the realization that their votes, no matter their hard work, count no more than the votes of those voting a straight-party ticket. Yet, we shouldn’t lose sight that the freedoms we enjoy in this country include the freedom to make whatever ballot choice we see fit.

     There are additional ways a well-reasoned vote might be diluted by the choices other voters make ― choices we might feel have nothing to do with the actual qualifications required to hold a given post. To some of us, these reasons for choosing one candidate over another might seem . . . “quirky.”

     Candidates’ physical appearances often play a role, as do tone of voice and personality. Sometimes the chosen candidate is a friend of a friend. I’ve known voters who voted for or against a candidate because of their name. There may be as many reasons as there are voters.

     A friend of mine once went into a voting booth undecided on four candidates for the same office. He’d met them but hadn’t made up his mind. He recalled, however, that one of them had mailed him a brochure, including an emery board on which the candidate’s name was printed. None of the others had sent him any campaign literature. And so, all else being equal, he decided to vote for the candidate who had sent him the emery board.

     In the midst of these examples, one is tempted to ask why we too shouldn’t rely on our gut feeling in assessing our choices, rather than spend time learning about the candidates. There’s nothing to stop us from doing just that.

     But in judicial races in Texas, where our selection process has thrust upon us the important task of choosing who’ll fill our judicial positions, we owe it to ourselves to do all we can to improve our judiciary. We would do well to start this task in the voting booth.

     First, we should make informed choices. Research candidates’ backgrounds, experience, training, beliefs and temperaments. That’s not always easy, but it isn’t impossible. Start with the internet.

     Google candidate names and search for campaign, party and voter guide websites. Do what we did before the internet ― ask people you know, look for candidate endorsements by social, political and professional groups, watch the news and read newspapers.

     As you gather information, watch for possible conflicts of interest that could make a judicial candidate less impartial. Talk to people you know in the legal profession for advice.

     It’s also helpful to consider criteria that are particularly important for anyone who would serve as a judge. These include impartiality, integrity, judicial temperament, collegiality, decisiveness, work ethic, social awareness, education and professional credentials.

     And finally, ask yourself whether you are satisfied with Texas’ system of electing judges. Should Texans continue to vote for judges, even though many voters, if not most, are unable to adequately evaluate dozens of judicial candidates that appear on ballots in large metropolitan areas like Harris County?

     If you think it’s time for a change, lobby your state legislators. Whatever conclusion you draw, I believe that complacency with respect to our judicial process is a danger to our representative democracy and a threat to the rule of law, both of which are crucial components of our judicial process.

     We must do all we can to preserve and protect our system of justice, which, although far from perfect, should be of paramount importance to all of us.