Texas Democrats unveil 2018 slate for top state courts

6:47 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Democratic candidates for Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, from left: Ramona Franklin, Steven Kirkland, Kathy Cheng, Maria Jackson and R.K. Sandill. CHUCK LINDELL/American-Statesman

Texas Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their slate of candidates for the state’s two highest courts — a prize the party has not captured since the 1994 election.

Four are state district judges in Houston, one is a lawyer practicing in Houston, and all five face an uphill battle in 2018 as they vie for seats on the important, though little-known, Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals — particularly with Democrats still lacking a well-known candidate for governor to lead the ticket and stir attention.

“We all know it’s a stretch goal,” said District Judge Steven Kirkland, running for the Supreme Court.

Still, the Democratic slate represents an increasingly diverse state, said Kirkland, who introduced himself as a gay man while standing at the Democratic Party’s state headquarters in downtown Austin with his fellow candidates, two African-American women, a woman born in Taiwan and man of South Asian descent.

“Our population is getting younger, it’s becoming a more diverse population, and we appeal to that,” he said. “There is a tremendous energy and tremendous hunger amongst Democrats across Texas. You can see it. I think Democratic turnout is going to be bigger this year than you’ve seen in many years.”

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District Judge R.K. Sandill, also running for the Supreme Court, attributed much of that energy to actions by Republican President Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We have a bully in the White House; we’ve got a governor who is a bully,” Sandill said. “Texans stand up to bullies.”

The Democratic candidates are:

• Kirkland, a state district judge and municipal court judge for 12 years and an advocate for affordable housing. He said he created the state’s first homeless recovery court designed to help homeless Houstonians stay out of jail and return to a productive life. He also admitted that he is the only Democratic court candidate with a criminal record — a driving-while-intoxicated conviction that led to more than 33 years in recovery from alcoholism.

Kirkland will vie for the Supreme Court seat held by Justice Don Willett, whose nomination to a federal appeals court bench is awaiting a vote by the U.S. Senate. Abbott announced Monday that once Willett is confirmed, he will appoint his general counsel, Jimmy Blacklock, to fill the vacancy.

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• Sandill, a district judge since 2009. He said the Supreme Court has become extremist, issuing opinions that have blocked government transparency and failed to correct the state’s school finance system. He will face Republican Justice John Devine, who is seeking a second six-year term.

• Kathy Cheng, a lawyer who focuses on civil and commercial litigation. She was born in Taiwan and said she was inspired to run for the Supreme Court after seeing how the legal system treats minorities and immigrants differently. She will face Justice Jeff Brown, a Republican.

• Maria Jackson, a district judge since 2009. She is seeking to be presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, a job held by Republican Sharon Keller. Jackson said the death of a 6-year-old girl in a DWI wreck prompted her to implement reforms, including breathalyzer tests at least three times a day, that were adopted by Harris County when probation is given for DWI.

• Ramona Franklin, who was elected as district judge in 2016 and is a former assistant district attorney. She said she wants to ensure that justice is given without regard to wealth, social status or other factors. She filed for the seat held by Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey.

No Democrat has filed for a third seat up for election on the Court of Criminal Appeals that is held by retiring Judge Elsa Alcala.

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