Every Monday at the Collin County courthouse about 500 potential jurors arrive, and I have had the opportunity to address many of them.
One thing I ask is if they know the name of ANY sitting judge whom they elect every four years. With little exception the reaction is the same – complete silence.
In Collin County the District Courts hear all felony criminal cases, including capital murder; all family law matters (including divorce and child custody); and civil cases, including those involving Child Protective Services.
Who are these men and women presiding over these cases, and in most instances deciding these very sensitive matters? They are members of the judiciary who work day in and day out to ensure justice is alive and well in Collin County. Not until a business or family member is affected directly, do people understand the significance of the courts and the people who run them.
It is important for voters to understand the responsibility of this job and the implications of judges’ decisions. They affect more lives at the most basic level than any other branch of government. Who we elect is an important aspect of being an informed citizen and voter.
Think about it. Judges sign warrants to search houses, businesses and persons. They sign orders removing children from their parents. They sign judgments sentencing a convicted defendant to jail or prison time. Serious matters such as these call for the most serious, deliberative people.
How do we choose the right candidate? Where do they stand on the issues? How are they chosen?
All judges in Texas, except municipal judges, are elected in partisan elections. Depending on the court, they stand for re-election every four or six years.
The first and easiest test to distinguish a judicial candidate is party affiliation. This label gives voters a basic understanding of the candidate’s philosophy. However, in Collin County where all officeholders are Republican, the inquiry must be more in-depth.
Normally, a candidate must answer questions about their position on a myriad of topics. However, a judicial candidate is not allowed to answer any question that they may have to preside over as a judge. Their impartiality must be steadfast. Topics such as health care laws, sentencing philosophies in criminal cases or whether the judge favors moms over dads in custody cases are out of bounds. The question of the constitutionality of a particular Texas statute is also off limits for a judicial candidate, as the answer would most certainly cause consternation for the litigants that appear before them on these specific issues.
So what is a voter to do to find out which judicial candidate is the best person for the job? Here are two places/ways to get started:
First, ask around the legal community. Although Collin County is now a large, growing county, the legal community is still rather small and news travels fast. Ask a lawyer or an employee at the courthouse what they think of each of the judicial candidates. Are they respected among the legal community? Do they have an appropriate judicial demeanor? Do the have the right qualifications and experience for the job? The answers to these questions by the very people that have dealt with them on a day-to-day basis will help shed light on their abilities as a judge.
Second, examine the candidate’s experience and qualifications. How long has the candidate been practicing law? Have they practiced in the same types of cases that they will preside over as a judge? Have they been involved in the community and proven their ability to be service oriented and fair? Do they have life experience that will help guide their decisions in a positive way?
One thing detrimental to the process is to ignore the candidates running for judge, thinking that you plan on staying out of court. It is certainly my hope to never see anyone in court, but odds are that you or someone you know will find yourselves in court at some point.
The time to be an informed citizen is before you go to the voting booth, not when you are standing before a judge.
About the author: Judge John Roach Jr. presides over the 296th District Court in the Collin County Courthouse.