The Republican majority that Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals held for almost 20 years came to end after last week’s elections in what is probably the real local upset of the midterms.
Overnight, the court of 13 Republican judges became majority Democrat with eight winning seats, including a new Democratic chief justice.
The 5th Court of Appeals is the largest in Texas and decisions made there affect Dallas, Collin, Grayson, Hunt, Rockwall and Kaufman counties. The 5th court — not to be confused with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court based in New Orleans — is where folks in the Dallas area go when they want to appeal criminal, civil or family court cases.
The change was one of the most significant to come from Texas’ midterm elections, says appellate lawyer David Coale, who called the switch from 100 percent Republican justices to majority Democratic ones “historic.”
“To put it in perspective, there are entire states that don’t have as active appellate courts as the Dallas Court of Appeals,” Coale says.
Winners included Robbie Partida-Kipness, Erin Nowell, Bill Pedersen, Amanda Reichek and Leslie Lester Osborne, who all beat sitting Republicans in their races, as well as Ken Molberg and Cory Carlyle, who beat their Republican rivals in open seats. Robert Burns beat sitting Republican Douglas Lang for chief justice.
Judges serve six-year terms in Texas, which is only one of seven states that hold partisan elections of appellate judges.
Coale says how the law is enforced won’t change but how it’s applied will. The change could mean rulings more favorable to jury verdicts and alterations in the use of arbitration.
“The thing is, Dallas generates tons of opinions, which means there’s a lot of precedents,” Coale says. “So if I was a judge wanting to change everything, that would be really hard to do.”
Other appellate courts in Houston and Austin saw a similar change with Democrats winning seats in the 1st and 3rd appellate courts, giving the entire Texas judiciary a bit of a shake up. Some are attributing the win to Beto O’Rourke supporters voting straight Democratic ticket, but others think Dallas’ demographic change made the switch-up in the 5th Court of Appeals imminent.
“Dallas and Houston are both home to Forbes 100 companies,” Coale says. “A lot of corporations that have moved to the Dallas area in recent years will be watching the court very carefully.”
Either way, one of the most exciting midterms in Texas is going to have effects that last, even if it's not through the Senate as many Texas Democrats were hoping.
“The court of appeals is where normal citizens touch the system more than the Legislature,” Coale says. “It has enormous day-to-day impact on people’s lives. It’s going to be something to watch.”
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