Judicial candidates face sanctions as races turn aggressive; Texas voters jump on the bandwagon

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Texas voters on Tuesday passed a state constitutional amendment that allows the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate and take disciplinary action against judicial candidates who are not currently judges.

Previously, the commission could only investigate sitting judges, report Law360 and the Texas Tribune.

The measure passed as judicial races that turn aggressive result in ethical sanctions for tactics “that wouldn’t raise eyebrows in a city council or mayoral run,” Bloomberg Law reports.

“Courts and bar associations are moving against attorney challengers and sitting judges if they step out of line in their campaigns, a growing number of which are fueled by piles of outside cash that raise other ethical red flags,” according to Bloomberg Law.

Bloomberg Law said missteps by judicial candidates in the past year “mainly involve clumsy backroom politicking, familiar political exaggeration, and retail campaign shenanigans not tolerated by the judiciary.”

Unlike politicians, judicial candidates can be sanctioned for misleading statements, Bloomberg Law said.

The article noted these cases:

• An Ohio judicial candidate received a public reprimand this year for incorrectly asserting in a campaign letter that her opponent moved to the county to obtain a judgeship. (Court News Ohio covered the case in May.)

• A Texas appeals judge received a public warning in December 2020 for allowing his name and likeness to be used to promote other candidates on door hanger ads. (Law360 covered the case in December.)

• In Pennsylvania, a state supreme court candidate changed a TV ad to include more context and remove one claim after the Pennsylvania Bar Association said it violated its standards. (The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the change Oct. 31; the candidate won the election.)

• A Florida judicial candidate was reprimanded in May for misleading website statements about his opponent’s record in criminal cases. (Florida Today had coverage.)

The Texas measure allowing ethics investigations of judicial candidates was among two constitutional amendments affecting judges.

State voters also passed a measure requiring 10 years of practice experience in Texas for appellate-level court candidates (previously, out-of-state practice could count toward the total), and requiring eight years of Texas experience for candidates seeking district court judgeships (up from four years).

Despite the new campaign rule in Texas, Craig Enoch, an Austin, Texas, lawyer and former state supreme court justice, isn’t optimistic about changing the climate of aggressive judicial campaigns.

“I’m not sure there are enough rules in place to stop it,” Enoch told Bloomberg Law.

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