Choate’s Election 2020 Guide, Down-Ballot Guide, Part 1

The other day, I discussed the Congressional candidates, with no surprises in my recommendations.  Before that, I discussed the Presidential nominees, and obviously recommended Joe Biden.  Today, I’m beginning my discussion of the down-ballot options comprising the rest of the election.  Since Texans get to vote for judges, and because we don’t have a straight-ticket option, our ballot is huge.  So this will end up being a few posts. 

Again, if you are in Harris County, you can get a sample ballot that will show you who you get to vote for in your precinct by going to  

Railroad Commissioner

Why we even have a railroad commissioner, and why we have to vote on it, is probably an interesting history lesson for another day.  In fact the Railroad Commission doesn’t even regulate railroads anymore.  Instead, it regulates oil and gas interests, but also environmental quality.  The choices are James “Jim” Wright (Republican), Chrysta Castañeda (Democrat), Matt Sterett (Libertarian) and Katjia “Kat” Gruene (Green). 

I recommend Chrysta Castañeda, and not just because she is the Democrat.  She has been endorsed by all the major newspapers in the State, the AFL-CIO, and a whole host of Democratic interests. An engineer and oil and gas attorney by profession, her main focus is ending flaring, which wastes enough surplus gas to power 4 million homes each day.  In her view, “Operators should be incentivized through enforcement and other mechanisms to turn the flared gas into electricity on the wellsite, powering their own operations.”  Which seems sensible to me.  It is clear she has done a lot of thinking about these issues, and has been doing so for a very long time.

Jim Wright, by contrast, includes as his first and foremost issue, “Border Security.”  Blaming “a vehicle of illegal immigrants” for making his wife a paraplegic, it’s clear he favors a wall between the United States and Mexico.  How he squares that with his other stated goal of protecting property rights, I don’t know.  He doesn’t have much of a plan for flaring, and his positions boil down to reducing regulations. 

Not to be flippant, but neither of the other candidates bear much mentioning. Sterett’s position on flaring, for example, is simply “Flaring – NOT FRACKING – is the problem,” and Gruene appears to have no website at all.)

Supreme Court

Given the way that the Supreme Court—entirely Republican—has acted this Spring, Summer, and Fall regarding COVID and access to voting, it’s hard to argue that any of ‘em deserves reelection.  Just recently, the Supreme Court said that Harris County could not send out ballot applications preemptively, and determined that concerns of lack of immunity to COVID is not a sufficient disability to allow mass voting by mail.  At least it didn’t curtail the early voting period the way Republicans wanted in the past couple of weeks. The orders issued regarding reopening courts have been ramshackle, opaque, and poorly worded, and they have done little to inspire confidence.  (Admittedly, COVID has wreaked Harvey levels of judicial chaos on every court in the State for the past 6 months, so it hasn’t been easy.)

Chief Justice

The choices are Nathan Hecht (Republican), Amy Clark Meachum (Democrat) and Mark Ash (Libertarian).  I recommend Amy Clark Meachum.

Nathan Hecht has been on the Texas Supreme Court since 1988, and has been Chief Justice since 2013.  After Republicans got wiped out in 2018, he argued that, like School Board elections, judicial elections should be non-partisan.  Which makes logical sense, but his timing, 22 years after he first went on the Supreme Court, is pretty suspect.  He supports bail reform, which is laudable, though his involvement in the system is negligible since the Supreme Court handles no criminal cases.  Hecht is nearing mandatory retirement age, and will not be able to serve his full term. Unless Abbott is defeated in 2022, Abbott will be able to appoint his successor. 

Amy Clark Meachum has been judge of the 201st Judicial District Court since 2011. She has received endorsements from all the major newspapers during the primary cycle. (That being said, editorial boards have endorsed incumbents for reelection.)  Her approach is generally more progressive, more inclusive, and more interested in reducing barriers to accessing justice.  She supports having judges and lawyers take implicit bias training, which sounds excruciating—not because it isn’t necessary (oh, it’s necessary)—but because I can just imagine the howls of protest.  But, because of this temperament, I recommend her.

Mark Ash, when asked by Texas Lawyer to provide answers to why he should be elected as Chief Justice, provided stock answers of “I strongly believe in protecting individual civil liberties and property rights for all.”  Which is all well and good. But. And his answer to equal administration of justice is to propagate pro se forms for pro se litigants.  Which would be refreshing (pro se litigants are just a nightmare), but is a fairly ho-hum response.

Place 6

The choices are Jane Bland (Republican) and Kathy Cheng (Democrat).  I lean toward Kathy Cheng here, even if the Houston Chronicle endorses Bland.  Bland is well-respected, generally, as a Conservative intellectual. Bland lost her seat on the Court of Appeals during the 2018 Blue Wave, and got rewarded with an appointment to the Supreme Court by Governor Abbott.  That being said, Cheng is a well-respected practicing attorney who has no judicial experience, and scant practice on the appellate level.  I don’t believe any of the current members of the Supreme Court deserve reelection, generally, and there’s something to be said about the value of including the perspective of a practitioner currently trying to practice law in the middle of a pandemic that is tempting to reward.  On the other hand, given how some inexperienced judges make complete messes of things, I’m wary.  So, I can’t really make a full recommendation, and I think we need far less conservative ideology in our jurisprudence.  Cheng would bring much-needed diversity to the Court, so I’ll probably vote for Cheng, but I’ll be doing it knowing that it’s a vote for destabilization.  Voting for Bland is understandable and warranted, though it will perpetuate conservative jurisprudence at a time that the state is surging towards progressivism.

Place 7

The choices here are Jeff Boyd (Republican), Staci Williams (Democrat), and William Bryan Strange III (Libertarian).  I have no problem recommending Staci Williams.  Boyd likes to dissent, and sometimes his dissents make sense.  Other times, they are inconsistent with positions he takes in other cases, and it’s pretty clear he just likes listening to himself.  He runs on a platform of supposedly keeping politics off the bench, but he has a political framework himself; he just doesn’t like the political framework of his challengers. Staci Williams is judge of the 101st Judicial District Court.  The Houston Chronicle endorses her for her breadth of experience, and a victory for her would increase badly needed minority representation on the Court, along with providing a counterpoint to the conservative ideology currently present on the court.

Place 8

This race includes Brett Busby (Republican), Gisela D. Triana (Democrat), and Tom Oxford (Libertarian). I recommend Gisela Triana.  Busby was appointed by Abbott after getting swept out of office in the 2018 Blue Wave.  Most papers have endorsed Busby because of his “textualism,” while acknowledging that Triana has an approach that favors legislative intent.  Triana is currently on the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, and has been a judge on every level.  The Chronicle endorses Busby, as do most lawyer associations. He is well-respected, and has authored more majority opinions than any other justice.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially in light of voting access, and that is why I will vote for Triana.

Court of Criminal Appeals

All candidates have judicial experience, and I have no qualms about recommending any of the Democrats on the ballot.  Newspapers have endorsed the incumbents, mentioning that things have improved since they came to the Court.  However, voting for the Democrats would go a long way to addressing some of the grievous decisions issued by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Place 3

The candidates are Bert Richardson (Republican) and Elizabeth Davis Frizell (Democrat). I recommend Elizabeth Davis Frizell.  Bert Richardson is a former prosecutor on the State and Federal level.  So was Elizabeth Davis Frizell, but unlike Richardson, she left being a trial attorney for the Department of Justice to become a defense attorney, before beginning her career as a judge. She recently ran to become the District Attorney for Dallas County, but ultimately lost.  Her platform is focused on reducing disparate sentencing, unfairness in application of the death penalty, and preventing wrongful convictions.  It isn’t clear that Richardson ever practiced as a defense attorney, and–with Richardson declaring himself “a conservative-minded jurist”—the Court of Criminal Appeals badly needs more advocacy-minded voices on it.

Place 4

Running for this position are Kevin Patrick Yeary (Republican) and Tina Clinton (Democrat).  I recommend Tina Clinton.  The Dallas Morning News endorses Yeary, calling him an “originalist” and calling her an “activist.”  Clinton has noted that the Court of Criminal Appeals is 88% non-Hispanic white—and in response Yeary says that he should not be penalized for his race, which is trolling and obnoxious.  Though Yeary has been a criminal defense attorney, Clinton also has substantial experience, including as Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 1.  Yeary’s conservative ideology and so-called “just calling balls and strikes” is activism in a different form, and the Court of Criminal Appeals has no problem affirming convictions even when clear errors have occurred.  I have no problem recommending Tina Clinton to replace Yeary.

Place 9

David Newell (Republican) and Brandon Birmingham (Democrat) are vying for this spot.  I recommend Brandon Birmingham.  While Birmingham is indeed a former prosecutor, his experience comes from seeking to overturn wrongful convictions.  Newell also has laudable skepticism to junk science, but his “textualist” philosophy cuts against him.  I have no problem recommending Brandon Birmingham.

State Board of Education, District 6

In my precinct, the choices are Will Hickman (Republican), Michelle Palmer (Democrat), and Whitney Bilyeu.  Texas For Public Education (T4PE) endorses Michelle Palmer, and that is my recommendation, as well.

State Representative, District 130

The choices for District 130 are Tom Oliverson (Republican), and Bryan J. Henry (Democrat).  We actually received a nice little mailer from Bryan J. Henry, featuring the intriguing quote “I know the aspirations and anxieties of Texas families BECAUSE I LIVE THEM EVERY DAY.”  Inside the mailer, he describes himself as a Texas Teacher for Texas Families.  And then it all makes sense—of course you live anxieties every day!  T4PE endorses Bryan J. Henry, and I agree—he is my recommendation for District 130.  

My next post will be about the next slew of down-ballot races, including courts of appeals and district judges.