Republican dominance continues for the two highest courts in Texas

The Texas Supreme Court is show on Jan. 15, 2020. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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Republicans held on to all their seats on Texas’ two highest courts in Tuesday’s midterm elections, an expected outcome in a state where Republicans have dominated statewide elections for the last quarter-century.

In statewide races for the Texas Supreme Court, which handles civil cases, incumbent Debra Lehrmann was joined by fellow Republicans Rebeca Huddle and Evan Young in securing wins Tuesday. In contests for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s top appellate court for criminal cases, three GOP incumbents — Mary Lou Keel, Scott Walker and Jesse McClure — were also victorious.

Final voting tallies were not yet available at 9 a.m. Wednesday, but all the Republican candidates held leads of 12 percentage points or higher with more than 90% of voting centers counted.

Each of the two courts has nine seats, with winners elected to six-year terms. Three seats were up for reelection this year in each court. Texas is one of eight states that fill their top courts through partisan elections, and a Democrat was last elected to the Supreme Court in 1994. The last time a Democrat served on the Court of Criminal Appeals was when Lawrence Meyers, who was elected as a Republican, switched parties in 2013. Meyers lost his 2016 bid for reelection to Keel.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled on a wide variety of high-impact cases, including the enforcement of the state’s pre-Civil War abortion ban, the COVID-19 mask mandates, the attempted state takeover of the Houston Independent School District board, and Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to the state child welfare agency to investigate families of trans youth.

Seven out of nine of the Supreme Court’s justices were initially appointed to the court by Republican governors in between elections.

Criminal cases in the state can move through one of 14 appellate courts before reaching the Court of Criminal Appeals. Appeals in death penalty cases in Texas go straight to this court, which reviews the cases for legal errors. The Court of Criminal Appeals is also the final arbiter of “habeas corpus” appeals, in which people incarcerated for felonies claim they are being illegally punished or unlawfully detained; this type of case includes innocence claims and alleged violations of incarcerated people’s civil rights.

Recently, the court has also ruled on cases involving illegal voting, as well as a high-profile decision against Attorney General Ken Paxton’s attempts to pursue election-related cases without the permission of local prosecutors. A Democrat has not been elected to the court since the late 1990s.

Texas Supreme Court winners

In Place 3, Lehrmann beat Democratic challenger Erin Nowell, a justice on the 5th District Court of Appeals. This is Lehrmann’s third reelection to the Supreme Court; she was appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Perry in 2010.

Huddle won her first election to Place 5 after Abbott appointed her to the role in 2020. Huddle beat Democrat Amanda Reichek, a justice on the 5th District Court of Appeals.

Young, in Place 9, also won his first election after Abbott appointed him to the court in November 2021. Young, who previously clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, beat Julia Maldonado, a Democrat who presides over the 507th Family Court in Harris County.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals winners

Keel ran uncontested for Place 2 on the Court of Criminal Appeals. She has been on the bench since 2016.

For Place 5, Walker, an incumbent who was first elected in 2016, kept his seat. He beat Democrat Dana Huffman, an attorney and municipal judge in North Texas.

For Place 6, Jesse McClure retained his seat, to which he was appointed in 2020. Before his appointment, he was the presiding judge of the 339th District Court in Harris County. He beat Democrat Robert Johnson, the presiding judge for the 177th Criminal District Court in Harris County.

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