Texas Democratic Judicial Candidates Pledge to Reduce Mass Incarceration

The Texas Supreme Court in Austin. (Courthouse News photo/Kelsey Jukam)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A handful of Texas Democratic candidates seeking to flip seats on the state’s two high courts committed Thursday to making the reduction of mass incarceration in the Lone Star State a top priority if elected in November.

The high-profile cases of death row inmate Rodney Reed and Benjamin Spencer – who is still serving a life sentence after a judge declared him innocent of a 1987 aggravated robbery he has long maintained he did not commit – are just two examples that Judge Elizabeth Frizell says should motivate voters to pay attention to the typically overlooked, down-ballot judicial races.

Judge Elizabeth Frizell, Democratic nominee for a spot on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, addresses viewers Thursday during a panel discussion.

“We have to make sure we understand who we’re electing to those benches to make decisions on those cases,” said Frizell, one of three Democratic candidates for the Court of Criminal Appeals speaking as part of a panel Thursday afternoon. “And now you have three strong Democrats who can take those seats, who are very experienced, and will make sure that we listen to all the facts.”

Frizell, a criminal defense attorney and former judge of the Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 7, said making sure trial courts allow mitigating evidence, and that appeals courts review disparate sentences, are two ways to achieve a reduction of mass incarcerations.

“This is one area where it’s not just Democrats, we have a lot of Republicans and Independents with us in this as well,” said Judge Amy Clark Meachum, a Democratic nominee for the Texas Supreme Court. “And I will say, when I become chief justice, we’re going to make this issue one of our top priorities.”

The panel conversation with seven statewide 2020 Democratic judicial candidates on Thursday was one of 50 online events held in the last four days as part of the state party’s first ever virtual convention. The result has been a weeklong showcase of Democratic candidates, platform ideas and get-out-the-vote strategies that focus heavily on recruitment and massive registration efforts, an undertaking made more difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum, Democratic nominee for Texas Supreme Court chief justice, speaks during a panel discussion Thursday.

Texas Republicans are continuing plans to host an in-person convention next month in Houston that will include extra meeting space to accommodate Governor Greg Abbott’s order allowing most businesses in the state to reopen at 50% capacity.

“We’re comfortable that we have worked it out, now it’s just implementing the plan,” said Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey. “I’m quite comfortable that our convention-goers will be responsible and respectful of each other and that we will successfully pull off the biggest political convention in the country.”

Dickey said Thursday morning that Texas Republicans would not only be excited to welcome President Donald Trump and the national GOP convention to Texas should the event be moved from Charlotte, but that the state is completely capable of hosting such a gathering, even with Covid-19 still lingering.

“We will have led by example by having our event in July and we will gladly support the RNC and whatever they need to do to respond to the challenges presented by the North Carolina governor,” Dickey said.

While no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since the 1990s, including in positions on the state’s two highest courts, Democratic party officials and candidates have insisted all week that shifting demographics, gains in the 2018 election and increased interest from national committees make it “the biggest battleground state in the country.”

“These benches have been majority Republican for over 25 years, but this is our best chance that we’ve had in 25 years to win,” Meachum said.

But Republicans in Texas won’t let that happen without a fight. Dickey said his party is seeing successes with their biggest voter registration effort in decades, which he said has brought in 89,070 new Texas Republican voters.

“They’ve been talking about turning Texas blue since we turned Texas red,” he said. 

The Texas Democratic convention will continue Friday and Saturday with two training opportunities, a U.S. Senate runoff debate and two evenings of general sessions with some of the biggest names in the Democratic Party set to deliver speeches, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden.

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