Texas Judge Elsa Alcala, Who Criticized Death Penalty, Won't Seek Re-election

Judge Elsa Alcala is pictured in the second row, second from the left
Judge Elsa Alcala is pictured in the second row, second from the left
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Judge Elsa Alcala, who sits on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, announced Thursday that she will not seek re-election.

Alcala, perhaps best known for her passionate dissenting opinions and for expressing deep concern about how Texas carries out the death penalty, will remain on the bench until her term ends in 2018. Announcing her decision on Twitter, the Republican judge said she decided not to seek re-election because she did not want to scrounge the resources and energy to mount another statewide judicial election.

"Although I have been fortunate in that I have repeatedly been elected or re-elected by the public," she wrote, "I believe that the results from partisan judicial elections are too random and unreliable for me to engage in this process for a fifth time. I have seen too many qualified judges lose their bids for election or re-election, and I have witnessed the converse situation too."

Judicial elections have historically been the subject of debate given that many voters don't pay much attention to judicial candidates — even though judges wield immense power in deciding people's fates and setting precedents affecting future cases. Statewide campaigns can be expensive despite the chance that they may be arbitrary or, as Alcala noted, "random and unreliable." Alcala, appointed to the high court in 2011 by Governor Rick Perry, said she would rather spend the time with family.

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"For me to run a statewide partisan campaign in the manner that would be required for my re-election, I would be compelled to undertake extensive travel and spend many nights away from my family that includes three teenagers in high school," she wrote. "This is too high a personal cost for my family at this juncture."

Alcala, who has been called a "voice in the wilderness" on the high court, made waves this summer after writing in a dissenting opinion that she had "great concern" about capital punishment in Texas. Though never conclusively saying whether she believes the death penalty is itself constitutional or not, Alcala raised three key reasons as to why it should be challenged in Texas.

For one, the inmate, who was black, had spent 20 years in solitary confinement, "in a small individual cell with little human contact," which Alcala said "could rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment." Second, noting that 72 percent of inmates on death row are black and that the country has a clear history of racial discrimination, she said, "I have no doubt that race has been an improper consideration in particular death-penalty cases." And on top of it, she noted the "evolving standards of decency" across the nation when determining whether a punishment is cruel and unusual.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing two death penalty cases in which Alcala dissented. In the case of Bobby James Moore, she concluded that it was "constitutionally unacceptable" to measure intellectual disabilities using outdated standards no longer accepted by medical professionals. And in the case of Duane Buck, who is black, Alcala blasted her colleagues' decision to deny Buck a new trial despite the fact that racially charged testimony was used in his sentencing hearing; a doctor, invoking Buck's race, said he would be a "future danger" to society.

Alcala, a former Harris County state district judge, said in her statement that she wanted to make the announcement now so that any candidates wanting to take her place could begin preparing their campaigns well in advance. She said she is undecided about what she will do next — but made clear that she is not "retiring."


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