Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 5
Candidates: Brent Webster
We have chosen not to make a recommendation in this race.
It is truly a shame that Sid Harle did not make the runoff in this race, as he is one of the most respected conservative judges in Texas, known for his fairness and vast experience. Instead, voters are stuck with two candidates who are simply unqualified to serve on the state's criminal court of last resort. Brent Webster has been working in the Williamson County District Attorney's Office for four and a half years, and was recently made First Assistant District Attorney after the First Assistant resigned in the wake of the conviction of disgraced District Attorney Jana Duty and her subsequent loss to her challenger in the March primary election. Scott Walker is a defense attorney in private practice. Neither candidate has any judicial experience.
Below is the write-up we produced during the primary election.
TPP recommends Sid Harle
This race is to replace retiring Republican judge, Cheryl Johnson. Of the four candidates vying for this position, only Judge Harle is qualified. Two of his opponents, Brent Webster and Scott Walker, have no judicial experience. The third opponent, Steve Smith, served two years on the Texas Supreme Court and has little to any criminal experience. Judge Harle is so substantially better qualified for the Criminal Court of Appeals than his competitors, it would be a travesty if he did not win this race. Messrs. Smith and Walker do not seem to have very visible campaigns; during our vetting process neither candidate had a website (or at least one that was findable), and it was impossible to find contact information. Mr. Webster responded to our request for his participation in our vetting process a day before our endorsements were announced, even though we had contacted him about a month prior.
Judge Sid Harle is a judicial conservative with an unusually diversified background for someone with as much experienced as he has in criminal law. For the last 27 years, Judge Harle has presided over the 226th District Court in Bexar County, a felony trial court which exclusively tries the same kinds of cases that make up the overwhelming majority of the cases reviewed by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals. During this time, Judge Harle:
- Has presided over more capital murder (including death penalty) cases than any other sitting judge in Texas; none of which have been reversed on appeal.
- Had two capital murder cases appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they were affirmed. One of those appeals resulted from Judge Harle’s ruling for the first time in Texas that the killing of a viable unborn baby was murder. The other appeal related to Judge Harle’s rulings in the first case in Texas using the mental retardation defense after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mentally retarded persons could not receive the death penalty. In that case, Judge Harle, in the absence of any legislative guidelines, established protocols for defining mental retardation and trying cases claiming mental retardation as a defense that were not only upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, but which have since been universally adopted by Texas courts.
- Presided over the investigation of the Michael Morton murder conviction, which Judge Harle found had been wrongful due to the District Attorney’s withholding of irrefutable evidence of Morton’s innocence. Morton was exonerated after spending 25 years in jail and the District Attorney, who by then was a District Judge, was forced to resign, was disbarred, and is being criminally prosecuted.
- Served for 8 years on the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, including acting as the group’s chair.
- Continues to serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals' Rules Committee and the Court's Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, which exonerates falsely convicted felons.
- Has been an adjunct professor of law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio for two decades.
- Successfully pushed for an innovative system of mental health and drug courts.
Judge Harle started his legal career in 1981 as a sole practitioner, handling federal and state family law, criminal and civil jury cases and defense of all forms of criminal proceedings, including capital murder. After two years, Judge Harle was hired by the Bexar County District Attorney as chief felony prosecutor, where over about a two year period he tried over 80 felony cases and appeared as a prosecutor before the Court of Criminal Appeals. Judge Harle then resumed his sole practitioner practice until 4 years later when Governor Bill Clements appointed him to the 226th District Court.
Judge Harle is the only candidate for this position who has briefed and argued a case in the Court of Criminal Appeals on capital murder. There are three current members of the Court of Criminal Appeals who were trained as prosecutors by Judge Harle. His experience demonstrates not only conservative values and an incredible work ethic, but also the wisdom and depth of knowledge needed by those who are elected to Texas’s criminal court of last resort
Brent Webster has worked as an assistant district attorney at the Williamson County District Attorney office since October, 2011. His current title is General Counsel. According to the District Attorney’s website, Mr. Webster is “assigned to financial crimes and civil litigation” which includes “prosecution of financial and white collar crimes, litigation of asset seizures and bail bond forfeitures, responding to petitions for expunction and non-disclosure, extraditions, responding to civil litigation and subpoenas, and overseeing open records requests.” According to zoominfo.com, Mr. Webster was previously assigned by the District Attorney’s Office “to screen new cases in the 277th District Court and work with local law enforcement drafting search and arrest warrants. His main duty is to dispose of state jail felony cases and seek preindictment resolutions in appropriate cases.” Prior to joining the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office, Mr. Webster worked for 5 years “as an assistant county attorney in the criminal division and the family justice division of the Williamson County Attorney's Office.”
Mr. Webster graduated from law school in 2005, which means he has been practicing law at most for just over 10 ½ years. While we do not know Mr. Webster personally, we understand he is a fine, upstanding, conservative young man. But his aspiring to join the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals this early in his career is, in our opinion, an overreach, especially when running against such an experienced and qualified jurist as Judge Harle.
According to his website, Steve Smith currently serves as Editor of www.TexasLegalGuide.com, “which provides basic information and self-help guidance on various legal problems facing ordinary Texans.” The website appears to be partially under development. Mr. Smith apparently formerly served as General Counsel to the Texas Legal Foundation, which filed several lawsuits, including one challenging the 2001 Texas law that provides in-state tuition and monetary grants to undocumented college students in Texas. He also claims to have filed, litigated, and won the landmark Hopwood case that eliminated racial preferences in admissions and scholarships at Texas universities between 1995 and 2003. Mr. Smith served two years on the Texas Supreme Court, from November 2002 through December 2004. After graduating from law school, he worked as a bill analyst for the Texas Senate and as a staff attorney, first for the Office of the Texas Secretary of State and then for the Texas Legislative Council. He spent three years at the legislative council and worked on redistricting issues and judicial selection.
Mr. Smith admits on his website to not being “a criminal law specialist” but claims “he knows more than the average Texas lawyer about our criminal justice system.” If elected, he plans to advocate “merging the Texas Supreme Court and the Criminal Court of Appeals” which he believes “would improve the state's jurisprudence (making it consistent between civil and criminal law), allow using the salary of the nine Criminal Court of Appeals judges to hire additional full-time professional criminal law staff, and give voters more control over the judiciary (because Texas Supreme Court races are more high profile than Criminal Court of Appeals races).
Mr. Smith may have had an exemplar legal career, but does not compete with Judge Harle’s judicial and criminal experience. We are further bothered by his focus on eliminating the already overloaded Criminal Court of Appeals, rather than on providing the best justice possible.
Scott Walker’s website describes him as a lawyer whose private practice “consisted of civil defense, veteran’s disability, criminal litigation, and appellate advocacy.” He says he “has written over seventy appellate briefs and sat as first chair in more than forty trials in district courts across North Texas. Scott has had a great degree of success in both litigation and appellate advocacy.”
Mr. Walker may have had an exemplar legal career, but does not compete with Judge Harle’s judicial and criminal experience.
Peer Reviews. Judge Harle is the only candidate for this Place with relevant judicial experience. He has consistently been rated the best District Court judge in Bexar County by the San Antonio Bar Association’s annual survey of over 450 lawyers in the county since the poll’s inception. In 2015, for example, Judge Harle was ranked as 95%, which was 6% higher than the next highest ranked Criminal District Court judge and higher than any other judge in the entire Bexar County District court system.
While these peer rankings are not scientific, they may be an indication of the level of peer respect a judge might elicit if he or she were elected to a higher court. Since appellate court rulings are based on consensus, the effectiveness of a judge is to some extent derived from his or her ability to build a consensus around their proposed rulings.
From the above it is clear that Judge Harle is by far the best candidate for this position. His election would provide the Court of Criminal Appeals with a strong, experienced, conservative judge that would help make the Court more effective and ensure justice to those appearing before it.