Returns for the State Board of Education and High Courts in Texas

The Texas State Board of Education affects textbooks across the country.
The Texas State Board of Education affects textbooks across the country. Photo illustration by Truthout
The State Board of Education in Texas has an outsize reach. Not only does it approve textbooks for the public schools in the state, because its order is so big, its selections often get passed on to schools in other states by publishers looking to consolidate their options.

Known for some fantastic fights among board members, the state board also has a conservative, often creationist bent, that critics say sometimes bends if not breaks the truth while leaving out the contributions of scientists and minority groups. It has also run into some hot water of late over its handling of the Permanent School Fund investments, the endowment that pays for educational materials for the school districts. The state board has a chance in this election to realign itself, if enough voters go that far down ballot.

In Houston area races for the State Board of Education, the District 6 race between Republican Will Hickman and Democratic challenger Michelle Palmer, Hickman prevailed to win the seat.

There was no incumbent in the race to fill the District 6 position which takes in western Houston and Bellaire and stretches north to The Woodlands, on the Texas Board of Education, Appointed chairwoman by Gov. Abbot in 2015, Republican Donna Bahorich announced a year ago that she was not running for re-election – that eight years were enough.

Hickman, an A&M graduate in mechanical engineering who went on to get a University of Houston law degree and works at Shell Oil, has three children in public schools in Spring Branch ISD.

He has worked as the volunteer General Counsel for the Harris County Republican Party and says that while he was on the Bellaire City Council he “partnered with other council members of different backgrounds and political views.”

Democrat Michelle Palmer was looking to turn the seat blue. The only teacher running for a State Board of Education seat this go-round, Palmer said she wants “to bring accuracy and efficacy back into the hands of our students with an improved curriculum.” She teaches history and government – two subject areas where the state board has entered into some of its most contentious battles between conservatives and its more liberal members.

The Aldine ISD teacher had told the Houston Chronicle editorial board she was especially troubled when the state board approved a curriculum that among other things, stated that Moses had an influence on the U.S.’s Founding Fathers – something that Palmer stated, simply is not true.

In the District 10 race Incumbent Republican Tom Maynard bested Democrat Marsha Burnett-Webster.  District 10 takes in an area carefully carved around Austin that includes Georgetown and Round Rock to the north of Austin, Sealy and Katy to the southeast and stops just outside College Station to the east.

Maynard was an agricultural science teacher for 13 years and is now the executive director of the Texas Future Farmers of America Association.

Burnett-Webster, a graduate of Prairie View A&M, has worked as a teacher, assistant principal and college administrator in several states and Canada. She had said she wants to get politics out of the state education board’s deliberations.

Texas Supreme Court

Anyone hoping for a change from the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, which handles appeals in civil and juvenile cases in the state, was disappointed in this year's elections.

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht retained his seat against his Democratic challenger Amy Clark Meachum. Hecht has been on the Texas Supreme Court since he was elected to it in 1988 and has been chief justice since 2014. A Dallas Republican, Hecht is the longest serving member of the court.

Democrat Meachum had wanted to become the first woman elected chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. She has been the presiding judge of the 201st District Court of Travis County since 2011.

Republican incumbent for Place 6 Jane Bland of Houston retained her position against challenger and practicing attorney Kathy Cheng, a Democrat. Bland had campaigned on the fact that she was elected by Texas voters to three different levels of judicial positions before Gov. Abbott appointed her to the Supreme Court in 2019. She began her practice at Baker Botts and was a partner at Vinson & Elkins before being appointed to the Supreme Court.

Sounding a familiar cry from challengers, Cheng said she represented the diversity that the court needs adding that its members do not reflect what modern day Texas looks like. She has been in private practice in the Houston area for almost 20 years.

In the Jeff Boyd v. Staci Williams race for Place 7, challenger Williams lost to the Republican incumbent Boyd. She had said she was running to restore balance “and give individual litigants an equal footing with large corporations” in her candidate response. She further said that the court in general and her opponent specifically is too tied to corporate interests.

Boyd had been former governor Rick Perry’s chief of staff (and before that his general counsel) when Perry appointed him to the Supreme Court at the end of 2012 to fill an unexpired term. Before he went to law school he was a youth and family minister at an Austin-based Church of Christ.

Republican Brett Busby of Houston who was appointed to his Place 8 Texas Supreme Court position in February 2019 by Gov. Abbott bested Democrat and Austin Judge Gisela Triana, who serves on the Third Court of Appeals. He was a partner at Houston’s Bracewell firm and was a judge on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals before being named to the Supreme Court.

A former prosecutor, Triana argued it’s time for more diversity on the court and says that seven of the nine Texas Supreme Court justices were initially appointed by a Republican governor, rather than being elected to the position.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

There won't be significant change in the makeup of judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where the three incumbents up for re-election are all male, white and Republican. This court is the highest criminal court in the state (not the Texas Supreme Court as many people mistakenly assume) so its importance to criminal defendants and in matters of developing criminal law is crucial

Republican Incumbent Bert Richardson retained his position against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Davis Frizell in the Place 3 race on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Of note is that in 2015 when he was a trial judge, Richardson refused to throw out a criminal indictment of fellow Republican (and then governor) Rick Perry who had threatened to kill funding for the Travis County DA’s office after the district attorney there was arrested for drunken driving The Court of Criminal Appeals later dismissed the case.

Frizell, a Black solo practitioner and former jurist with 20 years experience as a judge in Dallas, has argued that she brings balance to the court. None of the nine judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals are African American or Hispanic and she points out that most of the defendants who have appeared before her are people of color.

In the Place 4 race, Tina Yoo Clinton, a Democrat, lost to Republican incumbent Kevin Patrick Yeary. Yeary was first elected in 2014 to a six-year term after spending 23 years practicing criminal appellate law first for defendants and then as a prosecutor for the state.

Clinton, now the judge in Dallas County’s Criminal District Court. No. 1, has spent 14 years as a trial judge in municipal, county criminal and state felony district courts. She also touts the diversity she would bring to the makeup of the court.

In the Place 9 race, Republican incumbent David Newell won his re-election bid against Democrat Brandon Birmingham, judge of Dallas County;s 292nd District Court. Newell had said his experience in criminal appellate law makes him the best person to continue in the court’s Place 9 position.

Birmingham told Texas Lawyer that his extensive experience as lead counsel in jury trials including capital murder cases as well as a similar amount of experience presiding as a judge meant he was the most qualified candidate.

In Other Races:

Texas House District 142

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton bested his Republican challenger Jason Rowe by a wide margin to retain the Texas House District 142 seat he’s held since 1985, despite facing criticism for his role in pushing through the state law that allowed the Texas Education Agency to threaten a Houston Independent School District takeover.

Texas House District 24

Republican Greg Bonnen, the incumbent, was re-elected, beating Democratic challenger Brian Rogers.

Texas House District 28

This Montgomery County race pitted the Republican incumbent Gary Gates who in Tuesday's vote count retained his seat against Democratic challenger Elizabeth “Eliz” Markowitz. It was a fight with familiar faces — Gates and Markowitz faced off in a 2019 special election to fill the seat after Republican John Zerwas resigned in the fall. Markowitz garnered the most votes in the general election but failed to win the required majority, forcing a runoff. In the runoff election held in January, Gates walked away with the seat and 58 percent of the vote, making this the second election he’s won over Markowitz in less than a year.

Texas Senate District 13

Democrat Borris Miles kept his seat, leading by a commanding margin in early vote returns  which held throughout the evening, enabling him to defeat Republican candidate Milinda Morris. The district, which includes Fort Bend County and parts of Harris County, is majority Black and Hispanic and has long been a Democratic stronghold. It seems Miles’s troubles out of office — including but not limited to sexual harassment claims, repeated failures to disclose his business interests as legally required, and an indictment (and acquittal) on deadly conduct charges — haven’t made a dent in his electability.

Anna Ta and Schaefer Edwards contributed to this report.
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