Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the jurisdiction of the First Court of Appeals and the types of cases the court hears.
It was just after presiding over a same-sex wedding, in January, that the formerly Republican Justice Terry Jennings, of the Texas First Court of Appeals, started thinking more seriously about changing his party affiliation.
Jennings had been considering becoming a Democrat for years as he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the way the Republican Party had trended toward the fringes, turning “moderate” into a dirty word, he said. And as his children, two daughters in college and a son in high school, continued to ask their dad why he still identified as a Republican, Jennings said the question continued to grow harder to answer.
Then came the wedding.
When others commented to him that deciding to preside over a same-sex wedding was a decision many other Republican judges may not have made, “that's when I started thinking, Well maybe I'm not in the right party then,” Jennings told the Houston Press in an interview Monday.
The change-over makes him the only Democrat among the nine justices on the First Court of Appeals. Democrats make up just 12 of 73 jurists on the state's 14 courts of appeal.
Jennings made the formal announcement at the Harris County Democratic Party's Johnson, Rayburn and Richards fundraising dinner on Saturday evening, saying "today’s Republican Party has chosen a dark path I cannot take." Elected in 2000 to the First Court of Appeals (which hears
Harris County civil cases civil and non-death penalty criminal appeals cases originating in Harris County and nine other counties), Jennings said he was once proud to call himself a member of the Republican Party, and had always considered himself a conservative judge who applied the law just as it was written. Now, however, Jennings says his principles no longer align with those of the GOP.
“It's just a party I didn't feel comfortable being a member of anymore,” he told the Press. “You've heard the common expression a thousand times: I didn't leave my party; my party left me. And it's true.”
Jennings said that the political climate over the past year has also contributed to his decision to commit to the Democratic Party. While he clarified that his decision to cross over does not serve as an endorsement or rebuke of either presidential candidate (ethically, judges are not allowed to endorse candidates, Jennings said), his speech at the Harris County Democratic Party fundraising dinner offers a pretty good idea of whom Jennings may be supporting.
Here is an excerpt:
"My values and principles have not changed since 2000, but those of the Republican party have.
Over the years, I have watched this great nation, in all its diversity, grow richer and stronger. In 2008, I was excited when we elected our first black president. Too many Republicans were not. As the father of two daughters, and the son of a woman born before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, I am equally excited that we are about to elect our first woman president. Too many Republicans are not. I appreciate and embrace that we are a nation of immigrants, of individuals of many different faiths and ethnicities — all one people under our Constitution — all of whom are guaranteed equal protection under the law. Too many Republicans do not.
...As President Reagan’s son, Michael Reagan, recently tweeted, “If this is what the Republican party wants, leave us Reagans out. Nancy would vote for HRC.” Leave me out, too. Because today, the Democratic party — and the Democratic party alone — presents our country with a positive and optimistic vision for the future of all Americans, not just a select few."
He also gave a shout out to HRC to close out his speech:
“Secretary Hillary Clinton reminded us that 'America is great because America is good.' We really are stronger together.”
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Jennings has been elected three times to the First Court of Appeals bench since 2000 (again in 2006 and 2012), and the Houston Press also voted him best appellate judge in 2011. Before joining the bench following the 2000 election, Jennings worked as a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office.
Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, told the Press that the party is happy to welcome Jennings, who received a standing ovation from Democrats following his speech at the dinner, Lewis said. Lewis encouraged any other Republicans feeling similarly uneasy about supporting an “imploding” party to jump ship as well — as long as they support Democrats' values including diversity, equality and representative government, Lewis said.
“Those that are planning on staying in office a while have to search their soul," Lewis said. "They have to be able to look themselves in the mirror and say, 'which party represents people? And which party represents special interests and big interests?' I think they're going to find that if they want to be a representative who supports people, it's the Democratic Party. Period. End of story.”
Jennings said he is still undecided as to whether he will run for re-election in 2018.