Monday, July 30, 2007

Judicial Review

The Judicial Branch of Texas government is probably the most confusing branch of government, and one of the most complicated in the country. Here I will attempt to clarify the basic structure, and offer commentary on some of the strengths and weaknesses of this system.
The Judiciary is divided into 5 layers. The bottom layer is the Justice of the Peace and Municipal courts, which handle things such as small claims and marriages. The 2nd layer is the County court, which handles "A" and "B" misdemeanors. The 3rd layer is the District courts, dealing with things like divorce and felony cases. We then move to the 4th layer - the Texas Court of Appeals. This is the glue between the lower courts and the highest layer of the Supreme and Criminal Appeals courts. It reviews the lower court decisions and is the intermediary step to the highest courts. The 5th layer is bifurcated - or separated into a Supreme court that handles civil cases and the Court of Appeals which reviews criminal cases and death penalty cases. Many of these defined layers actually overlap and review each other.

This review is not comprehensive but rather a quick glance of the structure of the Texas Judiciary system. Within this system there are many irregularities. First most of the judges are elected in partisan elections. Second, in order to win the elections, the judges must actively campaign, making them vulnerable to the influences of interest groups. Third. the number of courts have exploded in attempts to keep up with all the casework, creating a cumbersome, fragmented system that is difficult to navigate. Finally, the Texas courts, like many courts in the U.S. grossly under represent the population they serve, constituting mainly middle-aged anglo males.

Okay, so this gives us a basic foundation. But what does this mean to you and I - average citizens? I have a few concerns to present to you, but encourage any and all of you to search out your own conclusions. To me the courts are a special and different arm of the government. The courts are special because they review and uphold the laws of the land. In essence, they have the final say in deciding if an action or law is just and upholds the constitution of that land. This is a different type of function from the wheeling and dealing of the legislative or executive branches. Since they hold this unique position, I feel that for true justice to be served, the judges themselves must be as free from the normal political influences of interest groups, or other pressures that could taint the 'judicial objectivity' that is necessary to uphold true justice.
That said, I do understand that the system of checks and balances is essential to help prevent corruption and abuse of power. So, appointing judges in a way that minimizes undesirable influences of special interest, yet doesn't remove them from accountability for their actions would be the best solution.

What exactly should this new process look like? While I do not assume to know all the intricacies of creating a new system like a political actor would, I think the first step is to move toward nonpartisan elections, and begin appointing more judges.

Also critical to a comprehensive outlook of justice and law is to have a judiciary that more accurately reflects the diversity of the population that it serves. This means increasing the number of women and minorities.

Overall, the Texas Judiciary has lagged behind the rest of the country even more than the rest of the branches. It is one of only four states that still use partisan elections to appoint judges. It is also one of the most complex and arduous systems in the country, some say in the world. Also it is severely lacking in diversity, lagging behind the rest of the branches.


Beth Leeker said...

I have to agree that the Texas Court System is incredibly complex. I had to read about each level of the justice system several times in our textbook and online before finally gaining a basic understanding of what each courts purpose was. Even after reading and re-reading several times, I found myself confused still during test 3 for our class when it asked questions about each court. I kept getting them all confused and mixing up each level. This problem, in a way, links back to the Texas Constitution being outdated and disorganized as we learned at the beginning of the class. Instead of taking the time to rewrite and correct our constiution we have simply tried to amend it and made the problem worse. Our state needs to simplify and update its government.

I have never really thought about judges being voted into office vs. appointed before this class. However, you make a good point that the justice system should separate itself from outside influence from interest groups in order to make fair decisions in court. I had never realized we were only one of few states that still vote judges in as opposed to appointing them. From now I'll be sure to pay more attention to the impact that has on our court system.

KSeago said...

Really nice post. A bit long on structure and short on analysis, but very good nonetheless. What about getting rid of elections altogether or moving to a retention election system?