While voters’ eyes may focus on the top of the ballot, for the Texas judiciary this election, most of the change occurred in the intermediate courts of appeals, not at the state’s two highest courts.
San Antonio’s 4th Court of Appeals saw the most turnover on any of the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts, losing two female and one male Republican incumbent justices to three female Democratic candidates.
Democrat Luz Elena Chapa, a partner in the Chapa Law Firm, credits her win of a 4th Court seat to hard campaigning and reaching out to Republican voters.
“I think that the voters realized that, for me, this opportunity is about true public service. It’s not just about working 8 to 5 and collecting a paycheck. I do want to become a strong leader for young men and women,” she says.
“It wasn’t easy to get where I got today. It took solid hard work. I’m 39 years old, and I hope that I serve the community well.”
Chapa won 52 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent Republican Justice Steve Hilbig, who received 48 percent of the vote.
Hilbig chalks up his defeat to straight-ticket voting — especially in Bexar County, the most populous county in the 4th Court’s jurisdiction.
Other Republican incumbents on the 4th Court who were defeated include: Justice Phylis Speedlin, who also got 48 percent of the vote, losing her seat to Rebeca C. Martinez, who won 52 percent of the vote; and Justice Rebecca Simmons, who won 49 percent of the vote, losing her seat to Patricia Alvarez, who received 51 percent of the vote.
“If you look at it, Bexar County voted approximately 25,000 more straight Democrat votes than Republican. I think that those individuals were recipients of straight-ticket voting,” Hilbig says of the three female Democratic candidates for the 4th Court. “And those three were the most active at running commercials and campaigning.”
Martinez, of San Antonio’s Law Offices of Rebeca C. Martinez, and Alvarez, of San Antonio’s The Alvarez Law Firm, did not return one call each for comment.
Speedlin believes the election was a near repeat of the 2008 election when Bexar County Republican judges lost their seats because of heavy Democratic turn-out during the election that sent president Barack Obama to the White House for the first time.
“I think it was a big Democratic year,” Speedlin says of the Bexar County voters in 2012.
Simmons agrees with Speedlin, noting that incumbent appellate and trial judges of both parties have been losing their seats in Bexar County regularly since 2008.
“In general, every race, good Republican judges were swept out. . . . and that happened in 2010 to some great Democratic county court judges,” Simmons says.
And that’s not a good trend for the judiciary, Simmons says. “It just makes it less likely that you are going to recruit seasoned and good judges and lawyers if, despite their merit, they might get swept out,” she says.
Democratic candidates for appellate courts certainly didn’t prevail everywhere. For example, Diane Henson, a justice on Austin’s 3rd Court of Appeals, received 46 percent of the vote, losing her seat to Republican challenger Scott Field, who received 54 percent of the vote.
With heavily Democratic Travis County as its urban base, the 3rd Court was once considered a safe seat for Democratic candidates. But the 3rd Court now has a majority of Republican justices on its bench, as the GOP-leaning population in the counties outside of Travis County has grown.
Henson believes conservative anger with President Barack Obama in the rural counties in the 3rd Court’s jurisdiction was a deciding factor in her race.
“I can only tell you that an anti-Obama sentiment seemed to overwhelm these races. And in Travis County, turnout was low. And we were disappointed in getting the vote out in Travis County. They just didn’t get it done,” says Henson, who notes that she campaigned in all 24 counties in the 3rd Court’s jurisdiction.
“You combine those together. It’s really just math. I don’t know what else I could have done. I did everything I physically could have done,” she says.
Field, of Austin’s The Field Law Firm, ran for the 3rd Court in 2010 but lost in the Republican primary to Justice Melissa Goodwin. He credits his win this election to lessons learned from his previous run for the appellate court.
“I learned a lot about how to campaign. It really increased my name identification with the voters in the 24 counties,” Field says of his 2010 campaign. “When I decided to run in 2011, I had built-in support throughout the counties who were ready to work for me, and I knew what to do. I was able to run a campaign that was able to stand toe-to-toe with the incumbent.”
El Paso’s 8th Court of Appeals also lost an incumbent in the 2012 general election: Republican Chris Antcliff, who Gov. Rick Perry appointed in 2011 to the Democrat-dominated court. Antcliff received 38 percent of the vote, losing his bench to El Paso solo Yvonne Rodriguez, who received 62 percent of the vote.
Twice previously, Perry had appointed Antcliff to El Paso district court benches, only to have Antcliff lose the benches to Democratic challengers in general elections.
“He’s actually been a peer of mine, and he’s a good guy,” says Rodriguez, a former El Paso County probate court judge, of Antcliff.
But the race for the 8th Court is decided in the Democratic primary, and that’s why she decided to run, Rodriguez says.
“I think that I was the Democratic nominee with the most amount of judicial and legal experience to serve on the 8th Court of Appeals,” says Rodriquez who defeated two opponents to win the Democratic nomination for the court.
Antcliff did not return a call seeking comment.
Harris County Trial Courts
There was no single-party sweep, or even a near-sweep, of district court benches in Harris County this November.
The election results were mixed, with 13 incumbent Democratic judges and four incumbent Republican judges winning re-election. Republican challengers defeated five incumbent Democratic judges, and a Democrat who had defeated an incumbent in the primary defeated a Republican.
Those results contrast with a 2010 Republican sweep of all Harris County district court benches that were up for election and a near sweep by Democrats in 2008.
“We are on the way to taking the courthouse back . . .” says Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. “All of our incumbents won. We picked up some of the seats we lost in ’08.”
His Democratic counterpart, Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, says there were good points and bad points to the results of the district court elections.
“There were certainly disappointments that we didn’t win them all,” Lewis says. “Harris County did lose some good criminal judges last night. Good people, fair people, big-hearted people — disappointing.”
The Democrats had most success in civil court benches and the Republicans in criminal court benches. Of the 13 Democrats winning re-election, 10 are civil court judges, and three are criminal court judges. On the Republican side, voters re-elected two incumbent civil court judges and two incumbent criminal court judges.
However, incumbent Democratic judges lost four criminal court benches and one civil court bench to Republican challengers. In that civil court race, Republican challenger Elizabeth Ray defeated 165th District Judge Josefina Rendon, the Democratic incumbent. Ray won back the bench she lost to Rendon in 2008. Neither Ray nor Rendon returned a telephone message each seeking comment.
The 215th District seat went to Democrat Elaine Palmer, who defeated incumbent Steven Kirkland in the primary.
The split between Democrats and Republicans in the district court races somewhat reflects how 1.2 million Harris County voters weighed in with a near equal split between Obama and Mitt Romney in the presidential election.
“When you have a presidential race, there’s huge implications as to what’s happening on the top of the ticket,” Woodfill says.
Lewis and Woodfill both say they encouraged voters to cast straight-ticket ballots. Of 1,201,263 votes cast in Harris County in the general election, 816,072, or 67 percent, were straight ticket.
Harris County District Attorney
Mike Anderson, a former Harris County assistant district attorney and a former state district judge, was elected Harris County district attorney, based on unofficial results in Harris County in the election.
Anderson, a Republican, defeated criminal-defense attorney Lloyd Oliver of Houston, a Democrat. Oliver had to go to court to fight his own party to retain his spot on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Anderson won 52.35 percent of the vote to 47.65 percent for Oliver, with all precincts in Harris County reporting, according to unofficial results from Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart’s office.
Anderson’s take on why he won: “I think just the issues that we were able to touch on resonated well, not the least of which was Mr. Oliver’s stand on domestic violence and the statement he made that women who were victims of domestic violence should learn to box.”
Oliver says his statements about domestic violence were misinterpreted. He says he advocates counseling, not a boxing match, for those involved in alleged domestic violence, and prosecuting an individual for domestic violence as a result of a heated argument between a couple is not always the best choice.
Oliver says Anderson got more votes because he took campaign contributions from lawyers and far outspent him.
“We had to fight every step of the way,” Oliver says, noting that he had to defeat his primary opponent, then he had to fight the leadership of the Harris County Democratic Party and the Texas Democratic Party to stay on the ballot.
In August, the Harris County Democratic Party removed him from the ballot on the ground that he violated Texas Democratic Party rules by making favorable public statements on May 30 and June 18 about current DA Pat Lykos, a Republican who lost the primary election in May to Anderson. Oliver sued to keep his spot on the ballot, and on Sept. 5, 189th District Judge Bill Burke ruled that Oliver did not violate the rules.
Texas Supreme Court
While few Texas voters may realize it, they set judicial history in the making by sending Republican Nathan Hecht to the Texas Supreme Court for the fifth time. Two years into his fresh six-year term, Hecht will surpass the tenure of the late Joe Greenhill and become the high court’s longest serving justice.
Hecht defeated Democrat Michele Petty, a San Antonio solo, receiving 56 percent of the vote to Petty’s 40 percent of the vote, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
Petty ran a bare-bones campaign against Hecht on a populist platform, advocating, for example, protection of jury verdicts. She notes that, while she had trouble raising money against Hecht, she did beat the incumbent in major urban counties such as Dallas County and Harris County.
“The reality is, I got 3.2 million votes” statewide, Petty notes. “We got our butts kicked in rural Texas. And Democrats have to come up with a different strategy.”
Hecht notes that the campaign was relatively quiet, and he felt that enough Texas Republican voters would be engaged by the presidential and congressional races that he wouldn’t have to run a hard and expensive campaign and buy television advertising to protect his seat in the general election. Republicans have held every statewide-elected office in Texas for more than 15 years.
“I’ve had hard races in the past and was glad that this race was not that difficult,” says Hecht, who says he objected to Petty’s charge at newspaper editorial board meetings that the high court often overturns jury verdicts. “We’ve just always thought if you looked at the cases and what they’ve held, the complaints don’t have any merit,” Hecht says.
Republican candidate John Devine and Republican incumbent Justice Don Willett, both of whom faced no Democratic opposition, also won their elections to the high court.
Court of Criminal Appeals
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, a Republican and three-term veteran of that bench, held onto her seat in the election. Keller received 55.51 percent of the vote, compared with 41.22 percent for Austin solo Keith Hampton, a Democrat, and 3.26 percent of the vote for Austin solo Lance Stott, a Libertarian.
In an email, Keller writes: “My personal challenge was not just to win, but to win decisively. Thanks to the voters, I succeeded in doing that. Over a million more people voted for me than for my Democratic opponent. More important, I beat him by a higher percentage than I won by in my last race. Now that the voters have given me a fourth term, I look forward to working with the other judges and with all of the wonderful people I have met through my work at the Court to improve the criminal justice system of Texas. Opportunities abound, and I am thankful that the voters have given me the opportunity to continue my work.”
Hampton says, “I had no idea what the outcome was going to be.”
But now that the results are in, he says, “The large margin indicates it must have been straight-ticket voting.”
While he campaigned, Hampton recounts, he traveled to politically conservative parts of the state and got a sense of how deep the state’s Republican roots run.
” ‘Keith, how did you become a Democrat? Was it a head injury? Was it genetic?’ ” he says people would ask him.
As a result of those factors, Hampton says, “I don’t feel bad [about the loss] because I did everything I could.”
Stott could not be reached for comment.
A look at the campaign finance reports filed by Keller and Hampton on Oct. 29, eight days before the election, with the Texas Ethics Commission shows that the defeated challenger raised and spent considerably more in the month preceding the balloting than the winning incumbent. Hampton spent $31,674 and raised $10,648 from Sept. 28 to Oct. 27. Keller spent nothing and raised $1,733 for the same time period. Her campaign also reported $15,000 in debt for the same time period. His reported no debt for that time period.
Mark W. Bennett of Houston’s Bennett and Bennett, who served as past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, ran unsuccessfully as the Libertarian candidate for CCA, Place 7. The Republican incumbent, Judge Barbara Parker Hervey, won 77.88 percent of the vote, and Bennett received 22.11 percent.
Bennett says: “The criminal-defense bar had hopes that there would be a presiding judge that wasn’t as state-oriented, and Keith [Hampton] worked really hard to get elected, but the voters of Texas aren’t prepared to elect a statewide Democrat. The partisan elections throw a monkey wrench in the judicial system.”
Shannon Edmonds, the staff attorney and governmental relations director at the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, said his organization, as a policy, declines comment on judicial races, and that members who are prosecutors in individual counties would be unlikely to comment about a statewide race.