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Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Legislature’s shameless and unconstitutional court-packing plan

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As any Texas voter knows, we elect our judges—and, except for our highest courts (the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals), we elect them locally. That’s true not just for trial courts, but for our fourteen intermediate appellate courts, too. For instance, the “Third” Court of Appeals here in Austin, which hears appeals from district courts in Travis County and 23 surrounding counties, is staffed by six Justices chosen by voters across those 24 jurisdictions. 

Three bills recently introduced in the Texas Legislature would take some of the most important cases away from locally elected judges. Between them, SB1045, HB3166 and HJR139 would create a new “Fifteenth” Court of Appeals to hear appeals in most lawsuits against the state or its officers. And although the new court would also sit in Austin, its judges would be elected on a statewide basis. The bills would thus take state-involved appeals away from judges elected in more Democratic parts of the state in favor of judges elected by all Texas voters—who haven’t chosen a Democratic candidate for statewide office since 1994. 

The U.S. and Texas flags fly over the Texas Capitol.
(Photo: Eric Gay/AP)
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Given how adamantly Republicans have opposed “court-packing” at the federal level in recent years, the hypocrisy is more than a little galling. But these proposals are more than just hypocritical; they would also violate the Texas Constitution, to say nothing of the endless (and costly) logistical and litigation headaches they would create. Because there is no compelling reason to go down that path, the Legislature would be well-served to reject these proposals—and, failing that, Governor Abbott should veto them. 

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