“Of course, the defenders of decent society and disciples of degeneracy are often the same people.” These words by American military historian and author Caleb Carr come to the fore whenever I consider appropriate standards for members of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.
As Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s appointee to the Texas Judicial Council and to the Access to Justice Commission, for example, I have collaborated with many judges and attorneys to improve our judiciary and our system of justice, especially by increasing access to justice for all Texans.
We’ve worked hard to ensure our judges have the education, resources and technology to do their jobs. Specifically, we’ve advocated for increasing judicial salaries so we don’t lose our best legal talent to the private sector; enhancing court security so our judges can make impartial decisions without fear of repercussions; and creating additional courts, when justified, to reduce caseload.
Unfortunately, not all judges in Texas personify the ideals identified with the power entrusted to them. This year we’ve seen judges admonished and reprimanded for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, failing to release court records on request as required by law and using the prestige of their office to advance the private interests of friends and allies.
I experienced judicial misconduct years ago when I witnessed cronyism and corruption in the courtroom at its worst. Instead of simply complaining or dealing with such evil quietly, I gained a greater appreciation for the majority of Texas judges who strive for excellence in the courtroom and for the fair administration of justice for all. Simultaneously, I became increasingly interested in electing and appointing the best judges possible.
Another disappointment followed, however, with the realization that the state entity responsible for holding judges accountable, namely, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC), was frustratingly secretive, unresponsive and slow to act.
During the last seven years, many of us have worked tirelessly to improve SCJC’s transparency, efficiency and effectiveness, including by passing SB 306 (2015) to improve the agency’s annual reports and HB 4344 (2021), which requires SCJC to investigate and resolve complaints timely. These reforms will not be sufficient if judicial races are unscrupulous affairs.
That’s why it’s important for Texans to vote in favor of Proposition 5 on the Constitutional amendments ballot on Tuesday (Nov. 2). It is an important step toward improving the quality of our judiciary by authorizing SCJC to hold judicial candidates to the same standards of ethical campaign practices as incumbent judges.
The section on political activities of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges seeking re-election and candidates for judicial office from telling voters how they would rule on a certain kind of case, endorsing other candidates or knowingly misrepresenting the views or qualifications of their opponents.
Because SCJC has jurisdiction only over incumbent judges, however, it is unclear who has the authority to reprimand judicial candidates. The result, unfortunately, is to give this group free rein without holding them accountable. Proposition 5 would close this gap by giving the commission clear authority also to reprimand and discipline candidates.
By approving Proposition 5, Texas voters will send a message that all persons aspiring to administer the law must first obey the law and follow ethical rules. Indeed, all “defenders of decent society” should be expected to behave decently on the campaign trail. SCJC should be empowered to ensure they live up to that task. Please vote “yes” on Proposition 5.
SENATOR JUDITH ZAFFIRINI, D-Laredo, represents Texas Senate District 21. She is the first Hispanic woman elected to the Texas Senate, the second highest-ranking senator, and the highest-ranking woman and Hispanic senator.