The story of judicial elections in the United States is loaded with irony. In the 1830s, a wave of Jacksonian Democracy rebelled against the notion of big-money elitists making appointment decisions behind locked doors. As a result, states slowly moved away from appointed state judges in favor of judicial elections. Texas joined the union in 1845, just as the movement was gaining momentum, and five years later it switched from court appointments to elections. Over the last 20 years, embarrassing 60 Minutes and Frontline reports, and Texas Supreme Court scandals, have made it clear that judicial elections not only turn prospective judges into politicians, they make them more reliant on wealthy contributors than Jacksonian reformers could have ever imagined. For example, Jacksonians probably didn’t envision Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder who’s bankrolled GOP politicians in this state for years, and is the unchallenged Sugar Daddy Number One for Texas judges. Since 2006, Perry and his HillCo PAC have funneled more than $300,000 to Texas judicial candidates (including $20,000 for Don Willett and $16,000 for Nathan Hecht in one day). Most judicial-election detractors would like to see Texas move to a merit-selection system, by which a commission would evaluate applicants and the governor would make an appointment based on the commission’s choice. That movement received some encouragement from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Caperton v. Massey case that judges should recuse themselves from cases involving major contributors. SCOTUS did not define, in dollar terms, what a “major contributor” is, but even if Caperton’s application may be narrow, merit-selection supporters see it leading to bigger things. “We think it’s a step forward. It doesn’t mean immediate change in Texas, but we see that already the Caperton ruling has shaken the status quo in other states and at the American Bar Association,” says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. “I think it’s going to result in more litigation to figure out exactly what the Court meant. But we’re heartened by it, because this is the first time that the Supreme Court has said that money in the courtroom can infringe on someone’s right to a fair trial.”
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