Massive Turnout Turns Important Texas Courts Blue

Vaidya Gullapalli

Beto O’Rourke may have lost his Senate bid to unseat Ted Cruz, but among the many down-ballot beneficiaries of historically high Democratic turnout were judicial candidates in the state’s big cities. Harris County, Texas, home of Houston, saw 59 of its judges voted out, in what the Houston Chronicle described as a “Democratic rout.” Democratic candidates “won each of 23 seats on the district judge bench, all 13 on the family court, all four for county civil judge, all 15 county misdemeanor judges and all four county probate judges.” 

In the misdemeanor courts, the election of 15 new judges, out of 16, could significantly alter the future of a federal lawsuit challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. All 16 judges were defendants in the lawsuit and all but two fought reform (those two were also among the 15 voted out).  The Houston Chronicle, in an editorial shortly before the election, endorsed the challengers in misdemeanor court judge races, citing the county’s cash bail system, described by a federal judge as unconstitutional, and incumbent judges’ opposition to bail reform. See also Our newsletter of Oct. 17, 2018, looked at the efforts to vote out judges complicit in the worst excesses of the system of mass incarceration.

Of the 59 new judges who will take the bench in the different levels of Harris County’s judicial system, an unprecedented 19 are Black women. Their election makes the local judiciary more representative of the county, one of the country’s most diverse. Nationally, women of color are underrepresented among judges. A 2015 report by the American Constitution Society found that while women of color make up 20 percent of the nation’s population they are only 8 percent  of state court judges.

Another notable newly elected judge is Franklin Bynum, who was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Bynum, a former public defender, ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for criminal court judge in Houston in April. Speaking with the Texas Observer in April, Bynum said he has seen how the courts work for “the police, the bondsmen and the prosecutors, and people are just the raw material to be chewed up.” His platform called for reining in the use of cash bail and the fees and fines imposed on the poor. Bynum told The Appeal in April that, “Judges were using high bail amounts as de facto detention orders for people charged with these minor offenses. They used bail as an instrument of oppression.” 

The Democrats also had remarkable success in the state appellate courts. Prior to the election, of the state’s 14 appeals courts 11 were controlled by Republicans. Three had no Democrats on them at all. The 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas had not a Democrat serve on it since 1992. After the election, 8 of the 13 judges on the court will be Democrats, writes the Texas Tribune. It was one of four appeals courts that the Democrats flipped.

The “solid Republican” Third Court of Appeals, which covers Austin and therefore has jurisdiction over challenges to laws passed by the Texas legislature, saw a majority of Democrats voted in. Previously, all four justices and the Chief Justice were Republicans. All four justices were voted out

One Harris County juvenile judge who was voted out made his feelings about it known in an unusual way. On Wednesday, Harris County Juvenile Court judge Glenn Devlin released nearly all the young defendants who appeared before him, reportedly asking them before letting them go whether they planned to kill anyone. Devlin’s actions caught people by surprise because of his history of harsh sentencing—Devlin and one other Harris County juvenile judge together accounted for more than twenty percent of all young people sent to juvenile prison last year. The Chronicle reported that these two judges “not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, but they also sent them younger and for less-serious offenses” than the third juvenile court judge in the county.  Ninety-six percent of the children sent to juvenile prison from Harris County were children of color. All three of the judges lost election by more than 10 percentage points. One public defender told the Chronicle that Devlin explained his actions by saying it was what the voters wanted.