Friday, May 18, 2012

Voters Flying Blind on Judges | Casey's Last Word

Imagine how you would feel if a judge ruled on your case without listening to either you or your opponent, without considering any evidence other than, say, your gender, your ethnicity and which party primary you had voted in.

Imagine he had spent, at most, five minutes considering the merits of your case.

That would be absurd.

Yet that’s about how much information most of us have when we mark our ballots to elect our judges.

Consider the last two elections of judges in Bexar County.

In 2008, the year Barack Obama energized the Democratic vote by boosting turnout by minorities and young people, the citizens of Bexar County considered only one Republican to be better than his Democratic opponent.

That was David Berchelmann, a respected veteran judge who had the good fortune to be opposed by an exceedingly poor opponent with the unfortunate name of Amber Liddell Alwais.

Even so, Berchelmann won by less than two tenths of a percent of the vote.

Just two years later, when Tea Party anger combined with Democratic disappointment, Bexar County voters chose Republicans in every single contested judicial race.

I guess it is possible that in 2008 the Democrats fielded an extraordinary slate of judicial candidates, and the Republicans ran a bunch of bums.

And it’s possible that in 2010 just the reverse happened.

Possible, but not reality.

The reality is that in high-turnout elections judges are just leaves floating on the electoral tides.

In big cities, there are too many judicial races for the media to cover and the voters to know all the candidates.

Bexar County has 27 state district courts and another 11 county courts-at-law.

So be honest, how much do you know about the candidates running for judgeships?

Here’s a pop quiz on just one candidate, Milton Fagin.

His name may be familiar.

He’s run every two years since 1998.

Did you know that he ran for City Council in the 1990s and wrote a hot check to pay for three campaign billboards?

Did you know that when he was sued over the $2,540 bill, he paid it on the eve of trial but refused to pay the billboard company’s legal fees of $1,200?

Did you know that when a jury ordered him to pay $13,656 for the other side’s lawyers, Fagin filed to run against the judge in the case, apparently hoping to have him recused before he entered the jury’s order?

Fagin also appealed the case, racking up another $4,000 in fees.

He lost a unanimous decision.

Having turned a $2,540 bill into $17,000 debt, he filed bankruptcy.

Did you know that in 2005 he decided to try another career – selling shoes at La Cantera’s Nordstrom’s?

And did you know that despite the fact that all the above was covered in news stories, Fagin, who runs every two years, in 2006 won 48 percent of the vote?

He’s on the Democratic primary ballot this year against District Judge Larry Noll, one of the county’s most respected judges.

Will Fagin win? Not likely, but anything is possible.

In 1994, Texas citizens elected Steve Mansfield to the Court of Criminal Appeals, our highest court for criminal cases.

Mansfield said he was a native Texan, but he wasn’t.

He said he had been licensed here “for a long time.”

It was one year.

He said his background was “primarily criminal defense.”

He was as an in-house insurance lawyer.

All these facts and more were in the newspapers before the election.

Judicial elections statewide and in the big cities aren’t democratic exercises.

They are lotteries.

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