Balancing the Bench

Will race and bad blood play a part in the Guv's judicial picks?

With that caveat in mind, the consensus of the courthouse crowd is that the sudden judicial interest shown by Stricklin -- long considered a potential successor to Holmes -- clearly indicates that Holmes has no intention of retiring soon, even after two decades as district attorney. Stricklin's chances for a judgeship are widely seen as tied to Holmes's support. But the D.A. has stayed relatively neutral in the past, insisting all the candidates who work in his office are qualified to be criminal judges.

In any case, Bush has a virtual pick of District Attorney Holmes's prosecutorial pack for the open criminal bench. On the minority side, the field includes Elsa Alcala, a chief prosecutor on the D.A.'s Organized Crime Strike Force who has more than a decade of experience; Ramon "Ray" Echeverria, a special crimes prosecutor; and Julian Ramirez, another chief prosecutor. Joseph Ownby, the black chief prosecutor in Bacon's court, is an applicant who is popular with several judges and court staffers.

Other Anglo prosecutors seeking the job are Kelly Siegler, George Young, Chuck Rosenthal and Jay Karahan. Randy Ayers, who returned to the D.A.'s office after an unsuccessful run against Judge Jeannie Barr, is also an applicant.

Visiting Judge Pat Lykos, who resigned her criminal district bench to enter the state attorney general's race four years ago, applied for the 338th as well as the other two open judgeships.

Wittig's 125th bench has drawn nine applicants. Levi Benton, an African-American lawyer and former business administrator at Bellaire General Hospital, is considered the strongest minority applicant for the job. As a Democrat, Benton ran against state Rep. Al Edwards several years back. That move might be overlooked by the GOP since Edwards's district is rock-solid liberal and off-limits to any serious Republican challenge. Another applicant, Willard Tinsley, once ran as a Democrat for a judgeship, then later ran as a Republican. His track record may not be so easily excused by party purists.

Karen Beasley Lukin, another hopeful for a Bush appointment, lost in last spring's GOP primary against Jeff Work, the newly elected 189th district judge. Others vying for the appointment include Charles Frost, Elsie Martin-Simon, Lee Thibodeaux, Patrick Timmons and William Luck.

Hardest to figure is the 14th Court of Appeals appointment. A list of applicants provided to the Press by Bush's appointments office names everyone who has expressed an interest in the appeals court in the last four years. Included are such unlikelies as crusty district Judge Sharolyn Wood, who once applied for chief justice of the court but reportedly got into an argument with Johnson during her interview. [Note to applicants who wish to succeed: Do not get into tiffs with the governor's appointments chief if you're serious about the job.]

Winnowing the deadwood off the list, front-runners include Gardere Wynne Sewell and Riggs managing partner Paul Allan Port, a witness last year in the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission proceeding that led to the resignation of Judge William Bell. Candidate Miles Whittington was a Bush appointee to a Galveston district bench who lost in the last election to a Democrat.

Judge Jefferson, the Harris County district incumbent, has not applied but is said to be interested in the appellate appointment. When Bush named him to the district bench, he openly warned away potential GOP primary challengers to Jefferson. Bush vowed to campaign personally for Jefferson if his selection of a minority drew any primary opponents.

The notion that the governor should consider race as a factor in any of the three appointments strikes Houston affirmative action opponent Ed Blum as inappropriate and no different from granting business preferences along ethnic guidelines.

"I don't believe that race, ethnicity or religion should be a criteria that should be evaluated either in appointments or the application process of anything," says Blum, the founder of the Campaign for a Color-Blind America. "In terms of the governor saying affirmatively, 'I want to appoint an African-American to this bench -- find me one,' I don't approve of that. Once you start to use race and ethnicity, or religion, you're really wading into very deep, uncharted waters."

Of course, suggests Blum, Bush could find other criteria to justify arriving at a similar outcome if he found himself choosing between applicants of roughly equal credentials. Referring to applicant Alcala, Blum speculates "perhaps she grew up in an inner-city neighborhood, and perhaps went to an inner-city high school, and perhaps she put herself through a university on scholarship. If so, that's a very different profile from [someone like] Stricklin. All of those things can come into effect [in deciding the appointment]."

In short, Blum says the governor "by using fair and honest demographic differences and casting the widest possible net ... can snare qualified people with unique backgrounds who just happen to be black and happen to be Hispanic."

Bush's Democratic predecessor Ann Richards often made appointments with the declared purpose of boosting the representation of women and minorities. Since that line doesn't go down too well in the governor's own party, he can always utilize Blum's rationale to explain how appointing minorities to redress the judicial race gap doesn't involve affirmative action at all.

Of course, Bush will have to restrain himself from winking after he makes that announcement....

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