Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When throwing the bums out didn't make a difference

Just what is the best method of picking judges? Should our courts be at the mercy of the political crosswinds. Is picking judges based on party affiliation a good idea? Is it possible to isolate judges from politics? Is that even desirable?

This past weekend Houston criminal defense attorney, and television host, David Jones penned an op/ed piece in The Houston Chronicle about the folly of straight ticket voting for judges.

Up until the 1980's, if you wanted a seat at the table of Harris County politics, you had to run as a Democrat. Within that milieu you could find folks all across the political spectrum. There was no clear ideology for the party and many folks referred to themselves as "Yellow Dog Democrats" meaning they'd vote for a yellow dog if there was a D after its name on the ballot.

That all changed after Ronald Reagan's counter-revolution in 1980. Over the next few election cycles the Democrats largely disappeared from countywide seats and the Republicans took over. The battle for the bench moved across the hall from the Democratic primary to the Republican primary. And there we sat for more than two decades - the influx of suburbanites from up north providing a majority for the right.

But then something funny happened in 2008. Barack Obama had some serious coattails and the Democrats pulled off a near clean sweep of countywide seats - only a couple of Republicans kept their seats on the bench. Was this the beginning of a new era in Harris County? Would we see a change in the way ordinary folk were treated at 1201 Franklin?

The short answer was no.

As Mr. Jones pointed out, from July 2011 to July 2013, the number of defendants sitting behind bars waiting for trial increased by 7%. Now it must be pointed out that the midterm elections in 2010 did not work out so well for Democrats and the Republicans maintained their grip on all of the misdemeanor courts. President Obama's coattails weren't nearly so long in 2012 and there was a rough split (leaning toward the Republicans) in the felony court races. Still Mr. Jones' point is well taken - given the opportunity to make a difference and put an end to an oppressive bond structure in Harris County, the judges punted and the problem remains as bad today as it was then - if not worse.
 It is a systemic failure of our jurisprudence in this county that there has been no organized voice for the interests of the accused citizen. This missing component in our justice system has enabled Harris County judges with their bias favoring jail rather than justice to dangerously overcrowd our jail, contribute to the prison costs of state government, and install Harris County as a national leader in death sentences and executions.
And of course Mr. Jones is correct about this - however, as I have stated many times in the past, those who are denied bond or who face the oppressive bonding practices in this county don't make up a very big bloc of votes. That is why our Founding Fathers created a tri-partite government. The idea is that the courts will protect the rights of the unpopular. Of course what has happened instead is the courts have led the charge in shredding the very paper on which the Bill of Rights was written.

Oppressive bond conditions and practices coerce thousands of defendants to enter guilty pleas every day in order to get out of jail. Neither the judges, nor the prosecutors nor even some defense attorneys with their hands out stop to consider the consequences of such actions. Few dare to think about what a mockery it makes of our criminal (in)justice system.

Certainly none of the judges who have come into office over the past few election cycles have given it much thought. If they had then first-time non-violent (alleged) offenders would be released on personal bonds and defendants would have the assistance of counsel at probable cause hearings when bond amounts are supposed to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

It doesn't matter whether the judges are Republicans or Democrats, they know there aren't any votes to be gained by doing what's right. No one is going to shower them with campaign contributions if they speak out against the injustice of how we do things now.

Choosing our judges by popular vote probably isn't the best way to do things. It places judges at the whims of the public. But appointing them won't solve the problem either. At least with our current system we have the choice to throw out those judges we don't think are doing a good job every four years.

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