Beto O’Rourke helped turn Texas courts blue

The Beto effect was felt throughout Texas.
The Beto effect was felt throughout Texas.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Beto O’Rourke is not in a punk band anymore, but he’s still pretty punk rock. Despite the Texas Democratic representative’s narrow loss to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in his bid for the US Senate, the long-shot candidate’s campaign efforts brought change to local courts at the trial and appellate levels.

The Beto effect was felt throughout Texas, which has what’s called a “straight-ticket voting” option. When used, a single vote for either Democrats or Republicans will decide the choice for every candidate on the ballot. And since O’Rourke’s campaign brought out the most midterm election voters in decades, Democratic candidates down the line benefited when his supporters chose that option. “The O’Rourke phenomenon has been so remarkable,” Jay Kumar Aiyer, an assistant professor of public policy at Texas Southern University, told the Texas Observer just days before the election.

As a result of the straight-ticket option, which ends with this most recent election, and increased turnout by Democrats, local Democratic candidates for judgeships won in unprecedented numbers and in places where Republicans traditionally prevail. At the appellate court level, Republican judges lost control of the Third Court of Appeals and the Fifth Court of Appeals, for example.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates for trial courts swept elections in Harris County, home to the city of Houston and the third-largest county in the US. There, a staggering 59 candidates for county, family, and juvenile court judgeships unseated Republican judges and will transform the local judiciary. Nineteen of these new judges are black women in a county that’s traditionally elected white men.

The effects of these changes could be extremely meaningful to people dealing with the courts—for example, indigent defendants, who are held in local jails rather than released on bail simply because they can’t afford to pay a bond. “Wealthy arrestees—regardless of the crime they are accused of—who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave,” explained US district court judge David Godbey in a September order finding Dallas County’s post-arrest procedures routinely violate the constitutional rights of the accused. “Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

Harris County Republican judges had previously challenged a district court ruling that this practice is unconstitutional, although the cash bail system that penalizes the poor is widely criticized by civil rights groups in Texas and beyond. Now, it’s likely that the new Democratic judges in Harris County will refuse to take up the mantle of their Republican predecessors and that the judicial bail challenge will be settled, according to the Texas Observer.

In juvenile courts, too, the new judges’ presence is expected to yield a kinder, gentler era. According to a 2018 judicial grievance, between 2014 and 2017, two Harris County judges were responsible for incarcerating 20% of all the state’s juveniles, and 96% of those kids from Harris County who were locked up were children of color. Many of these sentences were for crimes that didn’t result in imprisonment when the accused went before other judges, the Houston Chronicle reports. With those judges leaving the bench, it seems likely that kids in Harris County will not be imprisoned at quite the same rate.

Throughout Texas, O’Rourke’s ability to inspire Texas Democrats, independents, and disgruntled Republicans to get to the polls for a non-presidential election had a notable influence on outcomes. The state that was once considered red has turned purple, and Democrats did well in traditional Republican strongholds like Tarrant County.

The end of straight-ticket voting may ultimately lead to more nuanced results in Texas elections. Democrats may not sweep local county seats. However, if the most recent election is any indication, Republicans can no longer confidently claim the Lone Star state—and a win in the 2020 presidential race will not come easy to either party.