Efforts in the past few years to reform judicial elections and strengthen
judicial independence have met with mixed results. The Texas
legislature recently attempted to place judicial candidate information on
the Internet, to offer citizens more detailed background on the
candidates and perhaps reduce the costs of judicial campaigns. This
seemingly straightforward reform passed with no significant opposition in the
Texas legislature. But it met unexpected opposition from Texas governor and
Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.
In May, the bi-partisan bill sponsored by state representative Henry
Cuellar, a Democrat, and state senator Robert Duncan, a Republican, breezed
through both chambers of the Texas legislature. The legislation also had the
support of Republican Tom Phillips, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme
The legislation called for the Texas Secretary of State to post
information distributed by judicial candidates on the Internet. Cuellar, an
attorney, thought this legislation was a perfect way to increase voter
understanding of judicial campaigns: "If it's hard for us in the legal system
to know who the candidates are, then it's definitely going to be hard for
But Governor George W. Bush disagreed. In June, Bush vetoed the
legislation, saying it would place the Secretary of State in an
"inappropriate role." But that reasoning doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of
others who study the problems of judicial campaigns. Anthony Champagne, a
professor at the School of Social Science at the University of Texas and an
expert on judicial elections, says "there is nothing inappropriate about
trying to get truthful information out to the public."
Champagne is not alone. The American Bar Association has recommended that
states which elect judges should provide voters with candidate information as a
means of making voters more aware, and also as a way to try to alleviate some
of the increasing costs of campaigning for voter recognition.
According to Luke Bierman, a special assistant to the ABA president, "the
bar recognizes the difficulties in some states to move away from an elected
judiciary." For this reason, Bierman says "the association supports greater
access to information which would result in a more educated and knowledgeable
Roy Schotland, a Georgetown Law professor and a member of the ABA Task Force on
Lawyers' Political Contributions is more blunt. He reacted to Governor Bush's
veto by complaining, "it's obvious Bush didn't spend a day thinking about this
legislation." He emphasizes that the idea behind
judicial voter guides on the web is to avoid costs to the candidates. "This
is a cookie-cutter function for the Secretary of State," Schotland says.
"The (Bush) reasoning makes no sense, its preposterous."
If the legislation had passed, Texas would not have been alone in
putting information on the Internet. Washington (since 1996) ,
California and Oregon have
web judicial voter's guides. (The office of the lieutenant governor publishes
Alaska's voter guide; the other three are published by by the Secretary of
State in each state. )
Cuellar, surprised with the Bush veto, says the Secretary of State could
avoid being placed in an "inappropriate role" if a simple disclaimer was
placed at the end of the guide saying that the Secretary of State has no
editorial authority over candidate information.
But this simple disclaimer may not be enough to fix the reason for Bush's
veto, according to Anthony Champagne. He speculates that a greater informed
public may encourage split ticket voting and harm the Republican majority in
Texas. "The underlying reason," Champagne says, "could be that it might hurt
Republican judicial candidates."
Texas Chief Justice Phillips says there is a study underway to evaluate
whether a role for the Secretary of State in this voter guide is appropriate.
"We've asked the Judicial Council of Texas, which studies and makes
recommendations about policy, to study the issue of the Secretary of State's
participation in voter guides, either through the Internet, or through mail
services." Observers are awaiting the council's recommendations.
In the meantime, Phillips said voters would have access to information on
judicial candidates, just not through the Secretary of State. "We asked the
state bar to conduct such an Internet site in 1998, and I assume they'll do
it again for future elections."
Cuellar doesn't plan on giving up, either. His intention is to introduce
the bill again in the next Texas legislative session, after researching and
making the necessary adjustments it will need in order to pass. "In a state
as large and diverse as Texas," Cuellar says, "We should have a voter guide
offered through the Internet."
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