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Chief Justice Jefferson’s Speech Crosses Party Lines

Jefferson focuses on need for legal aid money and reforming juvenile justice.
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Judges have long been begging the state to let them be appointed, rather than elected, without all the partisanship and rhetoric and money that can cloud political campaigns. Lawmakers have largely ignored their pleas. But on Wednesday, things were different when Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson addressed a joint session of the House and Senate.

Jefferson is a Republican, but his speech focused on issues not normally associated with the Texas GOP. He began by asking lawmakers to soften the punishments on youth who break the law and not require that they go into the juvenile justice system. “Sending juveniles away to remote detention centers is sometimes necessary,” he said, “but it is not the answer to our societal problem.” Jefferson brought with him an incredible number of statistics, including one showing the need for mental health treatment among young offenders; 60 percent of incarcerated children need psychiatric treatment of some kind. He pointed to the disproportionate number of minority and special needs kids who find themselves before a judge.  

Jefferson’s talk sometimes bordered on the bleeding heart, as he described seeing the faces of “little girls addicted to methamphetamine” and hearing “the pleas of frustrated working mothers.”

He didn’t stop there. Jefferson next addressed the need for legal aid funding in civil cases and more money for defendants too poor to get a lawyer on their own. He framed both calls around access to the justice system. “The increasing inaccessibility of legal services—for the poor, for even the middle class—undermines the rule of law for us all,” he told the assembled lawmakers. He asked point blank for $20 million to go to legal aid. (The Legislature put $20 million into legal aid last session, but with a $27 billion shortfall, that money isn’t in this session’s proposed budget.)

This Republican justice was even more adamant on the need for money to help poor defendants, funds that are also cut in the Legislature’s draft budgets. Texas, he noted, spends less than most other states per capita on such defenses. The cuts would “drain the system of resources we need to assure indigent criminal defendants get competent lawyers who make the system fair,” he said. Jefferson also addressed two hot-button topics, especially in light of the state’s high number of exonerated prisoners: the importance of understanding forensic evidence, and the need to make DNA testing more widely available.

These are issues that lawmakers are eager to discuss. Softening consequences for young offenders, they fear, translates to “soft on crime” in an election. Putting money aside for needy citizens will rarely rank as top priority when funding for education and health care is on the line, even though the small amounts of money required would make a huge difference.

The rest of Jefferson’s speech was tried and true. He’s pleaded before for judges to be appointed rather than elected to the bench. He made the same request on Wednesday, also suggesting some compromises—no straight-ticket voting, longer terms for judges.

His calls for such reforms haven’t been heeded in the past and likely won’t be this session. But on Wednesday, Jefferson’s role as an elected, partisan judge gave his message more weight. On Tuesday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee had unanimously supported a measure to standardize eyewitness identification, one of the least-accurate methods of identifying an assailant. It was a reform that earned bipartisan support. But Jefferson’s speech made it clear that when it comes to the judiciary, there’s room for a whole lot more reform.