The last several years have seen several instances of “bench clearing” in Texas: due to shifts in voting patterns entire courts full of judges of one party have been removed in a single election.
- In 1994, almost the entire Houston (Harris County) bench was cleared as voters swept 41 of 42 Democrats out of office.
- In 2006, it was Dallas County Republican judges that lost big.
- In 2008, Harris County added a slew of Democratic Party backed judges, only to see a counter-sweep in 2010 as Republicans took all contested judicial races that year.
Even before the 1994 Houston sweep the Texas legislature had considered efforts to move judicial races off the straight ticket line, requiring that voters select judges individually and separately, but keeping them partisan elections. The efforts effectively died out between 2001 and 2009, at least some of that lack of interest can be attributed to efforts in the same time frame to shift from partisan to nonpartisan elections or some sort of merit selection.
SB 329 of 2009 was the only time the efforts even got out of committee. It stalled out on the Senate floor and was not reintroduced in the 2011 session.
In 2013, however, the bill has been introduced as SB 103 and is set for a hearing today (April 1) before the Senate State Affairs Committee.
A similar House bill, HB 1857 is also set for a hearing today before the House Elections Committee. HB 1857 is both broader and narrower than SB 103. Where SB 103 covers judicial races only, HB 1857 covers all county officers (including sheriffs, county clerks, etc.) and precinct level officers (county commissioners and constables) but would keep straight ticket voting for “statewide officers” such as the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.