Supreme Court of Texas
|Supreme Court of Texas|
Seal of the Supreme Court
|Established||February 19, 1846|
|Authorized by||Constitution of Texas|
|Appeals to||Supreme Court of the United States|
|Judge term length||6 years; renewable|
|Number of positions||9|
|Since||October 1, 2013|
|Jurist term ends||December 31, 2020|
The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) is the court of last resort for civil appeals (including juvenile delinquency cases, which are categorized as civil under the Texas Family Code) in the U.S. state of Texas. A different court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), is the court of last resort in criminal cases.
Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Texas Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight associate justices. Unlike the SCOTUS, however, all nine positions are elected, with a term of office of six years with no term limit, rather than life tenure. All members typically belong to the same party because all are elected in statewide races, rather than by the electorates of smaller appellate districts, as the justices on the intermediate appellate courts are. Although there are fourteen such courts, the state is geographically divided into thirteen. Two districts (the 1st and the 14th) are coextensive. The First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals serve the same ten counties, sit in the same Downtown Houston Courthouse, and also share a single clerk.
Regulation of the practice of law in Texas courts
By statute, the Texas Supreme Court has administrative control over the State Bar of Texas, an agency of the judiciary. The Texas Supreme Court has the sole authority to license attorneys in Texas, and also appoints the members of the Board of Law Examiners which, under instructions of the Supreme Court, administers the Texas bar exam. The Court has the last word in attorney disciplinary proceedings brought by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, a committee of the State Bar of Texas, but rarely exercises discretionary review in such cases. The Supreme Court accepts fewer than 100 cases per year to be decided on the merits. In addition to its adjudicatory and administrative functions, the Supreme Court promulgates, and occasionally revises, court rules of procedure, which include the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure (TRCP), the Texas Rules of Evidence (TRE), and the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure (TRAP).
Unique procedural aspects
The Texas Supreme Court is the only state supreme court in the United States in which the manner in which it denies discretionary review can actually imply approval or disapproval of the merits of the lower court's decision and in turn may affect the geographic extent of the precedential effect of that decision. In March 1927, the Texas Legislature enacted a law directing the Texas Supreme Court to summarily refuse to hear applications for writs of error when it believed the Court of Appeals opinion correctly stated the law. Thus, since June 1927, over 4,100 decisions of the Texas Courts of Appeals have become valid binding precedent of the Texas Supreme Court itself because the high court refused applications for writ of error rather than denying them and thereby signaled that it approved of their holdings as the law of the state.
While Texas's unique practice saved the state supreme court from having to hear relatively minor cases just to create uniform statewide precedents on those issues, it also makes for lengthy citations to the opinions of the Courts of Appeals, since the subsequent writ history of the case must always be noted (e.g., no writ, writ refused, writ denied, etc.) in order for the reader to determine at a glance whether the cited opinion is binding precedent only in the district of the Court of Appeals in which it was decided, or binding precedent for the entire state. Citations to cases from the Houston-based Courts of Appeals are also longer than others because they require identification of the appellate district number -- [1st Dist.] or [14th Dist.] -- in addition to the name of the city.
Justices of the Court
The Texas Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight associate justices, each of whom has one vote. Each member of the Court must be at least 35 years of age, a citizen of Texas, licensed to practice law in Texas, and must have practiced law (or have been a lawyer and a judge of a court of record together) for at least ten years. The Clerk of the Court, currently Blake A. Hawthorne, is appointed by the Justices and serves a four-year term, which is renewable.
Election of members of the Court and appointments
All members of the court are elected to six-year terms in statewide partisan elections. Because their terms are staggered, only a subset of justices is up for re-election in any one election cycle. When a vacancy arises, the Governor of Texas appoints a replacement, subject to Senate confirmation, to serve out the unexpired term until December 31 after the next general election. The initial term of tenure is therefore often less than six years. Most of the current justices were originally appointed either by former Governor Rick Perry or by the current Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who is himself a former member of the SCOTX.
The most recent appointees are Jane Bland, Jimmy Blacklock, and Brett Busby.
Brett Busby and Jane Bland are former Court of Appeals justices from Houston, whose re-election bids failed in November 2018 when Democrats won all of the judicial races. Blacklock formerly served Governor Greg Abbott as general counsel.
Blacklock replaced Don Willett, who now sits on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court that hears appeals from federal district courts in Texas. Busby succeeds Phil Johnson, who retired in 2018, and was sworn in on March 20, 2019. Jane Bland was appointed in September 2019 to fill the vacancy left by Jeff Brown, who resigned from the SCOTX to accept appointment to a U.S. district court bench.
The position of Chief Justice is designated Place 1 and is currently held by Nathan Hecht, the longest-serving member of the Court. It was previously held by Wallace B. Jefferson, who is now a frequent advocate before the high court on behalf of private clients, as are several other former members of the Court.
The other eight position numbers have no special significance except for identification purposes on the ballot. Informally, justices are ranked by seniority, and their profiles appear on the Court's website in that order.
Each member of the Texas Supreme Court is elected in a statewide contest, which is a key reason why there is no representation of the minority party on the Court, even though Democrats are now well-represented at the lower levels of the judicial hierarchy, whose judges are elected from smaller appellate districts and from counties.
Single-party control of the Court has a distorting impact on the High Court's jurisprudence, which was true when Democrats were dominant, as is true now after decades of the Republican lock on the high court. There are no liberal and conservative wings on the Court, and no swing votes. Most decisions are unanimous. Republican Governor Greg Abbott does his best to assure preservation of partisan Republican control of the judiciary. His appointees to vacancies are screened for ideological acceptability with a questionnaire that asks the candidate what U.S. Supreme Court decision they disagree with.
Women on the Court
Hortense Sparks Ward, who became the first woman to pass the Texas Bar Exam in 1910, was appointed Special Chief Justice of an all-female Texas Supreme Court 15 years later. All of the court's male justices recused themselves from Johnson v. Darr, a 1924 case involving the Woodmen of the World, and, since nearly every member of the Texas Bar was a member of that fraternal organization, paying personal insurance premiums that varied with the claims decided against it, no male judges or attorneys could be found to hear the case. After ten months of searching for suitable male replacements to decide the case, Governor Pat Neff decided on January 1, 1925, to appoint a special court composed of three women. This court, consisting of Ward, Hattie Leah Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil, met for five months and ultimately ruled in favor of Woodmen of the World.
On July 25, 1982, Ruby Kless Sondock became the court's first regular female justice, when she was appointed to replace the Associate Justice James G. Denton who had died of a heart attack. Sondock served the remainder of Denton's term, which ended on December 31, 1982, but did not seek election to the Supreme Court in her own right. Rose Spector became the first woman elected to the court in 1992 and served until 1998 when she was defeated by Harriet O'Neill.
The Texas Supreme Court currently has three women members, one of them Hispanic. Two of the female members of the Supreme Court were previously family court judges (Lehrmann and Guzman); the third (Bland) served as a district judge in the civil trial division of the Harris County district courts before being appointed to the intermediate court of appeals. As of September 2019, women jurists fill almost half of the 80 intermediate appellate positions. Some of the fourteen intermediate courts of appeals have female majorities.
|Justice||Party affiliation||Place||Age||Date service began||Originally||Law school||Term ends|
|Nathan Hecht||Republican||Chief Justice||70||January 1, 1989||Elected[a]||Southern Methodist||2020|
|Jimmy Blacklock||Republican||2||39||January 2, 2018||Appointed[b]||Yale||2024|
|Debra Lehrmann||Republican||3||63||June 21, 2010||Appointed[c]||Texas||2022|
|John P. Devine||Republican||4||61||January 1, 2013||Elected||South Texas||2024|
|Paul W. Green||Republican||5||68||January 1, 2005||Elected||St. Mary's||2022|
|Jane Bland||Republican||6||55||September 4, 2019||Appointed[d]||Texas||2020|
|Jeffrey S. Boyd||Republican||7||58||December 3, 2012||Appointed[c]||Pepperdine||2020|
|J. Brett Busby||Republican||8||47||February 21, 2019||Appointed[d]||Columbia||2020|
|Eva Guzman||Republican||9||59||October 8, 2009||Appointed[c]||South Texas||2022|
- Elected to Place 6 in 1988; appointed Chief Justice by Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2013
- Appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Subsequently elected in their own right.
- Appointed by Gov. Rick Perry (R). Subsequently elected in their own right.
- Appointed by Gov. Greg Abbot (R). Seeking election to a full term in 2020.
History of membership of the Court
Succession of seats
Supreme Court Committees
Created in 1997 JCIT was established to set standards and guidelines for the systematic implementation and integration of information technology into the trial and appellate courts in Texas.
JCIT approaches this mission by providing a forum for state-local, inter-branch, and public-private collaboration, and development of policy recommendations for the Supreme Court of Texas. Court technology, and the information it carries, are sprawling topics, and Texas is a diverse state with decentralized funding and decision-making for trial court technology. JCIT provides a forum for discussion of court technology and information projects. With this forum, JCIT reaches out to external partners such as the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Information Resource Agency, Texas.gov, and TIJIS (Texas Integrated Justice Information Systems), and advises or is consulted by the Office of Court Administration on a variety of projects.
Three themes consistently recur in the JCIT conversation: expansion and governance of electronic filing; the evolution and proliferation of court case management systems; and the evolution and governance of technology standards for reporting and sharing information across systems in civil, family, juvenile, and criminal justice.
The Founding Chair of JCIT from 1997–2009 was Peter S. Vogel, a partner at Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP in Dallas, and since 2009 the JCIT Chair has been Justice Rebecca Simmons.
2018 Texas Supreme Court judicial election
While Republican incumbents suffered massive defeats in the Courts of Appeals on November 6, 2018, bringing about a switch of majorities from Republicans to Democrats in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, the three Republican incumbents on the Texas Supreme Court who faced the entire Texas electorate in statewide races won comfortably.
Incumbent John Devine prevailed over his opponent R.K. Sandill, a sitting district court judge of Asian-American descent in Houston, with 53.75% of the vote and secured a second term. Justice Jeff Brown beat off a challenge by Democratic candidate Kathy Cheng (who unlike her fellow Democratic challengers did not have comparable judicial experience) with the same vote margin. The high court’s most recent appointed member, Jimmy Blacklock, defeated Steven Kirkland, who like Sandill serves as a district court judge in Houston, with 53.17% of the vote. Neither Sandill nor Kirkland were up for reelection this year and are expected to remain on their respective district court benches.
Justice Blacklock faced the electorate for the first time, having recently been appointed. Blacklock was Governor Abbott’s replacement for Justice Don Willett, who ascended to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals before his term on the Texas Supreme Court had expired, thus creating a vacancy and an opportunity for the Governor to fill it with an already-vetted candidate of his own.
All appellate court races were clearly driven by party-line voting. That worked in favor of Republican incumbents at the statewide level as usual, but against Republican incumbents in the court of appeals, whose members are each elected from one of fourteen appellate districts. Some of those districts favored Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, which entailed heavy Republican losses at the trial court level likewise.
Under the leadership of Governor Greg Abbott Texas Republicans have since moved to change the way Texas selects judges and justices in the major metropolitan jurisdictions. Their legislative initiative to amend the Texas constitution to forestall Democratic gains in third branch of government was unsuccessful, but a commission was formed to look at alternative selection methods.
2016 Texas Supreme Court judicial election
The six-year terms of office of the members of the Texas Supreme Court are staggered. Three Republican incumbents -- Green, Guzman, and Lehrmann were up for reelection in 2016 and won easily, as was expected, given the statewide nature of their electoral constituency in a Red state. Debra Lehrmann had been challenged by Michael Massengale, then a justice on the First Court of Appeals in Houston, in the Republican primary for not being conservative enough with respect to med-mal suits. Massengale later lost his re-election bid for the First Court of Appeals position to a Democrat, Richard Hightower, in the Democratic sweep of the intermediate courts of appeals in November 2018.
2014 Texas Supreme Court judicial election
Texas is one of seven states that elects Supreme Court justices on partisan ballots. Four justices of the Texas Supreme Court faced re-election in 2014. Three of the four sitting Supreme Court Justices, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Justice Jeff Brown and Justice Phil Johnson, were required to defeat challengers in a March primary before the general election in November. The candidates challenging the incumbent Supreme Court Justices, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, were recruited for the election and funded by a Houston plaintiff lawyer and Ali Davari, owner of two strip clubs: Sexy City and Erotic Zone.
Texas for Lawsuit Reform commented on the Texas election by saying, "Plaintiff trial lawyers are making an unprecedented attempt to regain the control of the Supreme Court that they enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, when Texas was known as 'The Lawsuit Capitol of the World.'" Also, an airing of Sixty Minutes entitled Justice for Sale gave a devastating critique of the Texas Supreme Court.
Houston plaintiff lawyer Mark Lanier, funded the bulk of the campaign to remove the Texas Supreme Court and business groups. Funding was disclosed in an article titled "Plaintiff Trial Lawyers Attempt to Distort Role of Judges and Juries".
In the years preceding the Texas Judicial Election, Lanier had become a vocal critic of the Texas Supreme Court after the Supreme Court reversed his signature trial verdict against Merck & Co. on behalf of a widow whose husband died after taking Vioxx. After Lanier suffered a second high-profile loss of a Vioxx case, in which the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston concluded in MERCK & CO., INC. v. Ernst, a wrongful death case by a widow, that Lanier failed to show that the ingestion of Vioxx caused the death of his client's spouse. Lanier's publicly criticized the Texas Supreme Court stating that it employs "a simpleton approach that basically white washes the trial, ignores the evidence, and is very conclusion based".
Lanier responded to the appellate setbacks in a press release:
Activist judges are protecting corporate executives and stripping away the rights of widows and every other victim of corporate misconduct…This decision was handed down by a group of judges who regularly accept campaign contributions from law firms representing corporations that appear in their courts. We will appeal this decision to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.
All judicial challengers recruited and funded by the Texas plaintiff lawyers lost to the incumbent Texas Supreme Court justices who won the 2014 Texas election.
School funding decision
In May 2016, in a 100-page ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that public school financing, a long-term political issue in Texas, is imperfect but constitutional. Specifically, the court ruled that the funding "satisfies minimum constitutional requirements". More than half of the school districts across the state had wanted the court to force the Texas State Legislature to guarantee equal tax revenues to wealthy and poorer districts alike. The court, which has only one Democrat member among the nine justices, said that legislators must tackle school funding and not expect the court to make specific policy decisions.
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Texas Supreme Court History: Links to Resources