After losing election, judge sets defendants free

I turned my ballot over the other day and had the same immediate thought I’ve had in every election since I moved to a state that elects judges: “This is a charade.”

Other than the Minnesota Supreme Court race between a sitting justice and a wholly unqualified and potentially dangerous challenger that no intelligent student of the law believes is fit to serve on the bench; and an appeals court race, a dozen or more single entries for district court judgeships awaited.

In fact, most of the time I spent in the voting booth was spent filling in ovals in uncontested races. “Better than wasting my vote,” I thought, as I wasted my vote.

Nobody wants to challenge district court judges and we can only guess why. Lawyers don’t want to run against someone they they might have to later appear in front of on behalf of a defendant. Being a great judge pays less than being a mediocre attorney. The sitting judge is just too darned good to replace. Who knows?

It’s still a charade. We don’t really elect judges, for the most part because we’re not given a choice and even if we were, we don’t know anything about any of the people on the ballot.

It could be worse, of course. We could be Texas where people do run against each other for such an important position.

One of the lesser reported aspects of Ted Cruz’s victory in the U.S. Senate race is it brought Democrats to the polls who swept 59 Republican judges from office.

Two of them – Glen Devlin and John Philips – were responsible for one-fifth of all the juveniles sent to prison in 2017 in Texas, the Houston Chronicle found in an October investigation. Ninety-six percent of the kids were minorities.

They not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, the paper said, but the two judges also sent them younger and for less-serious offenses than the other juvenile court in the county.

During the campaign, the Republicans ran ads saying the Democrats running for the judiciary would be soft on crime.

So on Wednesday, juvenile after juvenile appeared before Devlin — who lost the election — and juvenile after juvenile was set free, the Chronicle said.

“Apparently he was saying that’s what the voters wanted,” public defender Steve Halpert said.

Some of those released were charged with misdemeanors; some were charged with violent crimes. It didn’t matter to the judge having his temper tantrum over losing an election.

“The voters of Harris County clearly wanted a change in the juvenile courts and Judge Devlin today is showing us why the voters may have wanted change,” said Jay Jenkins, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We’re hoping now the juvenile courts can be a much fairer and more equitable place.”

I don’t have the answer to Minnesota’s charade. Nor can I say the experience in Texas is an affirmation or a condemnation of the electoral process for jurors. After all, given the opportunity, voters got rid of some bad judges, apparently. But how did they get on the bench in the first place?

That’s not to say, of course, that judges in Minnesota running unopposed are bad — or good — judges. It’s to say that in a state that elects judges, a lone choice for jurists does not a true election make.