What are the advantages and disadvantages of Texas's judicial selection process?

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In Texas, judges are selected via direct election instead of political appointment. This method is quite unusual in the United States of America, and it’s interesting to evaluate both the advantages and disadvantages.

The overarching benefit of this system is that it places power in the hands of the people,...

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In Texas, judges are selected via direct election instead of political appointment. This method is quite unusual in the United States of America, and it’s interesting to evaluate both the advantages and disadvantages.

The overarching benefit of this system is that it places power in the hands of the people, especially at the local level, which is aligned with American democratic principles. Judges are elected similarly to how state representatives are elected. Judges therefore become accountable to local constituents instead of getting their positions via political appointment by the governor, who may not be in tune with the wants and needs of a local region.

Another benefit is that in theory this method removes the risk of corruption through political favors. When a governor appoints a judge, it sets up a dynamic which questions if that judge owes a favor to the politician.

Also, this process removes lifetime appointments. Judges with lifetime appointments do not answer to anyone and can turn into activist judges. Direct elections can remove a judge who acts in an activist manner.

Some argue that this aspect can turn into a disadvantage. For example, a judge in a predominantly pro-life district is incentivized to make pro-life rulings even if legally the pro-choice ruling would be more correct. Others argue that a predominantly pro-life district should have an openly pro-life judge.

One of the biggest disadvantages is this method rewards savvy politicians and campaigners over nonpartisans. The judicial branch was intended as a branch of government that transcends party politics, so in theory the best candidate should be nonpartisan and not allow party politics to play a role in judicial decisions. In a constituency with 50% Republicans and 50% Democrats, a nonpartisan should garner support from both sides as a compromise of sorts. However, nonpartisans can be passed over in favor of activist judges with outspoken support on single, hot-button issues such as abortion.

While the judicial branch was intended as nonpartisan, in practice, all humans have political biases and judges being honest about their personal political beliefs is more transparent than activist judges hiding behind a nonpartisan-in-name shield.

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The system of electing judges in Texas is a fairly unusual one from a global perspective. It has some advantages and some disadvantages.

On the positive side, it is a fundamentally democratic process and thus compatible with the values of a democratic nation. In theory, it can prevent the partisanship and corruption due to appointed judges. Since judges, in theory, do not owe appointments to politicians, they should be free to pursue cases of political malfeasance and corruption without fear of retaliation as they, in theory, do not owe favors to the political establishment.

In fact, though, the negatives outweigh the positives. Because judges run on party tickets rather than independently, they lack the independence of party influence, which was the main rationale for their being elected rather than appointed. Next, the judiciary should be an impartial branch of government filled by people expert in the law rather than by charismatic campaigners. The general voter is not really qualified to judge expertise. Often judicial elections are determined by a few "hot button" issues such as support or opposition to abortion or attitudes towards immigration rather than actual knowledge of the law and ability to be impartial. 

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In Texas, the people elect their judges. Unlike in some states, they aren’t appointed. There are advantages and disadvantages to the method of electing judges. One advantage of this method is that by having the people elect the judges, it reinforces the idea of local control for judges elected at the local level. The governor, who may not be in tune with local needs, doesn’t appoint these judges. Another advantage is that this method makes the judges accountable to the people. If the people don’t like a judge, they can vote the judge out of office in the next election.

There are disadvantages to the method of electing judges. A judge could be voted out of office, because the people might not like one decision that the judge made, even though it might be the correct decision based on the way the law is written. This could encourage a judge to make a decision that would please the voters, even if it isn't the proper decision based on how the law is written. People could also vote based on a single case and not consider the qualifications of the judge running for the office.  People might also vote for a judge because of the political views of the judge instead of the qualifications of the judge. This method may politicize the office and encourage out-of-state groups and their money to get involved in the election to help a particular candidate from a particular party win the election.

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In Texas, judges are selected through direct, partisan elections.  That means that they run for office as Republicans or Democrats and are elected by the public as a whole.  They are selected in exactly the same way as members of the legislature, in other words.

The major pro of this system is that it makes judges more accountable to voters.  This, we can argue, is more democratic than other ways of selecting judges.  The people get to examine the candidates and choose the ones they want.  This is the essence of democracy, at least from one point of view.

However, there are many criticisms of this manner of selecting judges.  First, it causes judges to make decisions that will please the voters, not decisions that are in accordance with the law.  Judges are supposed to follow the law, not the opinions of voters.  Second, the system arguably makes judges less independent.  Because they have to run for reelection, they need to have money.  This means they have to solicit donations from various sources.  This can make them less independent as they seek to please groups that have money to donate to them.  Finally, it is possible that the quality of judges is lower because they are selected based on their ability to appeal to the public, not on their legal qualifications.

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