Herman: Progressing toward a better way of picking judges?

It’s good that the Texas Legislature created a new and needed state district court for civil matters here in Travis County. Now comes the hard part: We, the voters, must pick a judge for the court.

Admit it. We’re not always really good at that. It’s not that we don’t want to do our civic duty and do our homework and pick a good judge. It’s just that, well, life and long primary ballots and zillions of candidates running for all kinds of stuff and the Olympics on TV … .

Sometimes we the voters are pretty good at picking presidents. Sometimes we’re pretty good at picking governors. But when it comes to picking judges, many of us have no idea what we’re doing. It’s OK. That doesn’t make us bad people, though it does mean we occasionally wind up with bad judges. (And right here may I recommend our coverage of contested local judicial races.)

Forgive us, for when it comes to voting for judicial candidates, we often know not what we do. Judicial races are so off-the-radar that there’s no evidence, so far, the Russians even care about them.

So, a moment of sympathy, please, for judicial candidates scrambling for our attention in the clutter of campaign season. And let’s have a few weeks of pity for we the voters who must pick among judicial candidates, which is particularly difficult in the primaries, when we don’t have the crutch of party affiliation to fall back on.

This year in Travis County, there are nine district judgeships on the ballot. There are no GOP candidates. In six of the Democratic primary races, the incumbent is unchallenged. In another race, incumbent David Crain faces Chantal Melissa Eldridge (not to be confused with chanteuse Melissa Etheridge.) In another, Catherine Mauzy is the lone candidate for a seat held by Orlinda Naranjo, who’s not seeking re-election.

The remaining judicial race is in the 459th District Court, created last year by Texas lawmakers. The seat’s now held by Dustin Howell, an appointee by Gov. Greg Abbott who’s not running to keep the gig.

The three Dems in the race — Greg Hitt, Maya Guerra Gamble and Aurora Martinez Jones — are doing what political candidates are supposed to do, even if when running for a nonpolitical post. That includes yard signs to make some kind of quick, drive-by impression that might pop into a voter’s mind during the ballot-box moment of truth.

Hitt’s yard signs serve as a good juncture for a renewed discussion on whether electing judges is really the way to go.

At the top of Hitt’s sign is the word “progressive.” Then it says he’s a Democrat. Then it says “Greg Hitt” (with a gavel-shaped I). The smallest words, at the bottom, say “For 459th District Judge.”

What, we must ponder, does “progressive” tell you about how a judge might judge? Perhaps it conjures up the notion of somebody who champions the righteous and downtrodden underdog over the evil and uptrodden corporate overdog.

Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Except in a courtroom. There are times when properly applied law and facts would favor Big Corporation over Little Man. I know. We hate when that happens. But we want judges who run fair courtrooms and properly apply the law, regardless of a litigant’s station in life.

I inquired about Hitt’s definition of progressive and how progressivism might manifest itself in a courtroom. In a statement, he said “I am a progressive Democrat and I communicate that to voters in my campaign materials, including yard signs. I am committed to open-mindedness, independent thinking and social consciousness — putting people first and assuring that every voice is heard.”

He also said, “Anyone who seeks the nomination of the Travis County Democratic Party should be active in the party. My campaign materials communicate my history with the party.”

Hitt also said he is “a student of the law” and believes “that the rule of law is an important foundation of democracy. All Texas judges are bound by the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to be faithful to the law and make decisions without bias or prejudice.

“If elected, I will abide by that code and I will be fair to all parties in my courtroom,” he said.

All three candidates seem qualified by resume. Guerra Gamble specializes in Child Protective Services cases. Martinez Jones is an associate judge, which means she presides when needed.

And please don’t take any of this as a complaint about Hitt or his yard signs or progressivism, a word that sounds so, well, progressive. In fact (and understandable – if not downright required — in a Travis County Democratic primary) Hitt’s not the only local Democratic judicial candidate who wants to be joined at the hip with progressivism.

Guerra Gamble says in a mailer “A vote for me is a vote for a progressive, trauma-informed courtroom that guarantees fairness for all.”

And Eldridge, who’s challenging incumbent Crain in another local judicial race on the Dem ballot, turned up on an ad on my TV the other night during the women’s figure skating short program. Her tagline: “It’s time for Travis County to live up to its progressive values. I’m Chantal Eldridge and I’m asking for your vote.”

To me, Hitt’s yard sign is a curbside outcry about partisan election of judges. The other option, of course, is nonpartisan or appointed judges. The challenge in the latter is who should do the appointing? We’re probably talking about elected officials doing it. And what would that mean in a state with one-party rule?

In general, there are two ways to pick judges: We can elect them or we can appoint them. Anybody got another idea? I’m looking for something progressive.

One more thing: Somebody with a Hitt yard sign in Northwest Hills colored in the white letters that say “Progressive.” Curious. Could be an attempt to highlight, though it sure looks like an attempt to obscure. My attempts to contact the homeowner failed.

One more thing: Maybe the most appropriate word on any of the judicial campaign yard signs is on Guerra Gamble’s — specifically the word “Gamble.”

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