Special Consideration for Court of Criminal Appeals Races

 

Unlike the Federal and most other states judicial systems, which have one “supreme” court of last resort, Texas has two “supreme” courts: the Texas Supreme Court, with responsibility for civil cases (including all juvenile cases which are considered civil); and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles all criminal matters.  These two courts work together to establish the rules of appellate procedure and the rules of evidence for criminal cases. The Court of Criminal Appeals also administers public funds appropriated for the education of judges, prosecutors, criminal indigent defense attorneys, clerks and others involved in the state’s appellate, district, county-level, justice, and municipal courts.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is made up of 9 judges who are elected in state-wide elections for staggered terms of six years. The Court sits in Austin but, from time-to-time, may move to other locations to hear cases.  The Court currently has 8 Republican judges and 1 Democrat.  The only Democrat, Judge Lawrence Meyers in Place 2, was elected in 1992 as a Republican but changed parties in 2013, making him the only statewide Democrat officeholder.  He is running for re-election this year, but considering recent Republican success in Texas, will likely be defeated.

After a trial court decides a criminal case, either the State or the defendant may appeal to a higher court.  If the appeal is of a case that resulted in the death penalty or if it is an application for post-conviction habeas corpus relief in a felony case, the appeal goes directly to the Court of Criminal Appeals for review. These appeals are considered non-discretionary.  Appeals of all other trial courts criminal matters go to one of the 14 Courts of Appeals, and, after a decision in that court, may be appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court of Criminal Appeals has the discretion to accept or reject appeals from the Court of Appeals.  The Court of Criminal Appeals may also review lower court criminal decisions on its own motion.  The overwhelming majority of the cases that reach the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals are felony cases.

One of the most critical responsibilities of the Criminal Court of Appeals is adjudicating death-penalty cases.  While the annual number of new death penalty sentences in Texas has fallen dramatically since the Legislature established the “Life Without Parole” sentence in 2005, death penalties are still handed down in Texas and take a disproportional amount of time for the Court to resolve.  In fact, each death penalty case takes an average of 698 days to resolve; compared to an average of 47 days for a writ of habeas corpus and 271 days for a discretionary appeal.  We believe it is inadvisable to elect to the Court of Criminal Appeals judges who have no significant experience presiding over death penalty cases.  People’s lives and the credibility of our judicial system is at stake in these cases and this is not the judicial level where We the People should take risks with unproven candidates.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals typically disposes of more appeals and writs each year than any other appellate court in the country.  To give an idea of the workload of the Court, in the 2015 fiscal year, the Court of Criminal Appeals received 7 appeals in death-penalty cases, 4,698 habeas-corpus petitions (50 from death penalty cases)  and 1,312 appeals from the Courts of Appeals (of which the Court granted review in 100). After deciding each non-discretionary and discretionary case the Court accepts on appeal, the Court delivers a written opinion providing the rationale for its decision.  Judges disagreeing with the majority opinion or having a different basis for arriving at the same decision may file written dissenting or concurring opinions.  This Court is very hard working with an extremely heavy workload.  It deserves to have experienced judges with demonstrated conservative values, wisdom and profound knowledge of criminal law who can contribute to quality of the justice administered and the efficient running of the Court by providing thoughtful and persuasive legal analysis of the issues confronting the court. 

The Court of Criminal Appeals has experienced substantial turnover in the last two election cycles, reducing significantly the length of experience on the Court.  Prior to the 2014 election cycle, the Court’s 9 judges averaged 15.3 years of experience on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. However, three members of the Court retired in 2014 and one is retiring in the 2016 election cycle.  With these retirements (and the probable replacement of the lone Democrat on the Court by a Republican this year), the average years of experience on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after this election will fall to 7.4 years (assuming the one Republican incumbent standing for re-election is re-elected).  If Judge Michael Keasler (Place 6), who has 18 years of experience on the Court, is not re-elected, the average years of experience on the court will fall to 5.4 years, with a majority of the Court’s judges (5 out of 9) having 2 years or less experience on the Court!  It is therefore imperative that Texas replace these retiring judges with highly experienced proven conservative jurists who have a track record reflecting a strong work ethic and the respect of their judicial colleagues.