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Dallas Morning News - "My Ballot"

Interview

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Dallas Morning News - "My Ballot"

DMN: Length of residency in Texas:

Cathy Cochran: I first came to Texas in 1976 with my husband and two children. In 1978, we moved to Venezuela for two years for my husband's business. When we returned to Houston in 1980, I went to law school and began a second career. I practiced law as a prosecutor, defense attorney, appellate specialist with Rusty Hardin, law school professor, author and speaker until Governor Perry appointed me to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2001.

DMN: Occupation/main source of income:

Cathy Cochran: Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

DMN: Current civic involvement/accomplishment highlights:

Cathy Cochran: Founding Member, Impact Austin, a women's charitable-grant organization; Member, Robert W. Calvert Inns of Court; Ex-Officio Member, State Bar Pattern Criminal Jury Charges Committee, Author, Texas Rules of Evidence Handbook.

DMN: Previous civic involvement/accomplishment highlights:

Cathy Cochran: Selected as the Jurist of the Year in 2006 by the State Bar Criminal Justice Section; Member of the Board, Texas Youth Commission 1999-2001; Member of the Board, Harris County Mental Health Mental Retardation District; Member of the Board, Harris County Hospital District; Named "Professor of the Year" three times by the University of Houston Law Center students; Member, State Bar Administration of the Rules of Evidence Committee.

DMN: Previous public offices sought/held:

Cathy Cochran: Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals.

DMN: How much funding have you raised for your campaign?

Cathy Cochran: Zero. I do not think that judges should be partisan political candidates, and I strongly believe that judges should not solicit or accept campaign donations from anyone who might appear as a lawyer or litigant in front of them some day. I pay necessary campaign expenses from my personal financial resources.

DMN: Who are your top three contributors?

Cathy Cochran: No one.

DMN: Have you ever been arrested? If so, explain:

Cathy Cochran: No.

DMN: I am the most qualified candidate for this position because:

Cathy Cochran: I have experience as a judge on this court for over six years, as well as previous experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney, law school professor, Director of Criminal Justice Policy for then-Governor George W. Bush in 1995, and author of the Texas Rules of Evidence Handbook. I have seen the Texas criminal justice system from almost every perspective and recognize the legitimate needs and concerns of each of its constituencies.

DMN: What changes, if any, would you like to see made to the administration of the death penalty in Texas?

Cathy Cochran: The future of the death penalty is in the hands of Texas citizens and the Texas Legislature, but we must work harder to ensure that every indigent defendant is properly represented by adequately compensated counsel throughout the process. The goal of any trial, including capital murder cases, is to ensure that the jury reaches an accurate result through fair procedures. We currently have multiple layers of post-trial appeals by different courts to ensure that this goal is met, but all members of the criminal justice community must work together to ensure that we have the most effective policies and procedures possible.

DMN: Michael Richard was executed after Presiding Judge Sharon Keller refused his plea for a 20-minute extension to file an appeal. How would you have handled that case?

Cathy Cochran: I was quoted in newspapers at the time saying that I would always accept any filing at any time when an execution is imminent. Justice does not depend on office hours. I would have immediately told Judge Johnson, the judge assigned Mr. Richard's case, to inform the judges to be ready to vote on a late-filed stay of execution. The Court was already aware of the legal issue and could have acted expeditiously had the judges known of the problem. Since then, the Court has developed an emergency e-mail filing system to prevent another such event. We have also reduced our informal policies to formal written guidelines.

DMN: This court has a reputation for being tough on crime — sometimes unreasonably so. Is this reputation deserved?

Cathy Cochran: The Court of Criminal Appeals is required to follow the law as it is written by the Texas Legislature. The citizens of Texas, acting through its Legislature, are tough on crime. The Legislature has the power and authority to change those laws if the citizens demand it. The Court of Criminal Appeals would then interpret and apply those new laws just as it follows current laws. This Court must also faithfully follow the federal constitution as explained by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sometimes their decisions are a bit difficult to understand, but once this Court does understand them, it always follows them.

DMN: What sitting judge do you hold up as a role model? Please explain.

Cathy Cochran: Senior Judge Charlie Moylan of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He is a supremely gifted jurist--intelligent, honest, patient, and even-handed--as well as a noted constitutional scholar. He is also a brilliant author whose writing style compares favorably with David McCullough. He can translate complex legal and factual issues into plain English, but with a literary flair, zest, and puckish humor that makes all of his opinions easily readable and understandable to the average citizen. All citizens should be able to read, understand, and appreciate judicial opinions. We need more such articulate judges.

DMN: What role, if any, does mercy have in justice?

Cathy Cochran: Mercy has an essential role in justice, but it does not have a large role in the judicial system itself. Legislatures should draft laws with an eye toward mercy toward both crime victims and deserving defendants. And the executive branch, acting primarily through the Governor's clemency role, can and should exercise mercy when individual cases merit it. Judges, however, must focus upon upholding the law as it is written to be fair to all. They can, should, and do, however, apply the rule of lenity (or mercy) when addressing the meaning of ambiguous statutes, so that the law is interpreted in the least punitive manner.

DMN: Describe what you see as the proper temperament for a judge.

Cathy Cochran: Patient, intelligent, fair and even-handed to all, empathetic to legitimate concerns and claims, willing to explain the basis for his legal decisions and its logical rationale in plain English to the litigants and to the public. A little self-deprecating humor is much to be admired, as is modesty and the ability to cooperate with others. An appellate judge should have an innate love for legal research and for the rich history of the law to fulfull his role in applying the law to new contexts and in educating the bench, bar, and public about the importance of the Rule of Law to the future of America.

DMN: When should a judge overrule the decision of the jury?

Cathy Cochran: When the law so requires. Ours is an adversarial system. We rely upon equal, but opposing, attorneys to give the jury all of the relevant evidence, cross-examine the witnesses, and provide a persuasive theory of the case. The judge gives the jury all of the pertinent law to follow. Then 12 ordinary citizens retire to the jury room to deliberate, and the truth should emerge with their verdict. Sometimes good-faith mistakes occur along the way, and the trial or appellate judges must decide whether, despite some inevitable mistakes, the verdict is nonetheless an accurate one fairly obtained.

DMN: As an attorney/judge, what types of cases have you handled in your career?

Cathy Cochran: I have always specialized in the criminal law, but, in private practice, I also handled numerous civil appeals. I think that our criminal justice system would be well-served by encouraging more large-firm civil attorneys to participate in criminal cases and appeals and vice-versa. I also think our system would be vastly improved if all prosecutors and defense attorneys were required to exchange places for a while. The failure to understand and appreciate the other guy's viewpoint is a common problem in our current adversarial system.

DMN: For appellate court incumbents, what's the average time it takes from the time a case is filed to when it is disposed of in your court?

Cathy Cochran: Too long. The Office of Court Administration reports that the average case-processing time from filing to disposition is 821 days for capital punishment cases, 67.5 days for writs of habeas corpus, and 60.7 days for petitions for discretioanry review. But these statistics are somewhat misleading. What matters is how quickly we decide whether to hear a case and then how quickly we deliver an opinion after the case is submitted. Some judges are very timely in writing opinions, others are not. We should publish statistics on how long a submitted case is pending in a particular judge's office.

DMN: If you have been a judge, what was your reversal rate?

Cathy Cochran: The U.S. Supreme Court has twice reversed one capital murder case, LaRoyce Smith, for which I wrote the majority opinion affirming the death sentence. We thought that we were following established Supreme Court law, but we were mistaken. The Supreme Court has now clarified its position and we will faithfully follow its guidance.

DMN: As a judge (if applicable), have any complaints been filed against you to the Judicial Conduct Committee? If so, please explain the disposition of those complaints.

Cathy Cochran: Someone once filed an anonymous complaint against me, but the judicial Conduct Committee dismissed it as unfounded.

DMN: As a lawyer, have you had any proceedings (complaints) filed against you with the Grievance Committee? If so, what was the disposition (unfounded, private reprimand, public reprimand, suspension, disbarment)?

Cathy Cochran: During my seventeen years as a prosecutor and defense attorney, I had three complaints filed against me. All three were dismissed as unfounded. We cannot (and should not) prevent people from filing complaints or lawsuits, but those without conceivable merit are (and always should be) quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively dismissed. In my experience, our state grievance system works well.

DMN: Because Texas selects its judges and justices through partisan elections, you chose to run as a Republican or a Democrat. What philosophies of that party led you to choose it for this race?

Cathy Cochran: I am a fourth generation Republican, so I was born into it. I admire the core philosophy of self-reliance, responsibility and accountability, fiscal prudence, and "you-stay-out-of-my-life-and-I'll-stay-out-of-yours" social attitude that the Republicans espoused during my youth when Ronald Reagan was the Governor of my home state, California. I believe that government should not take on too many tasks, but that what it does do, it should do very well--effectively and efficiently--in the service of the public interest.

DMN: The Supreme Court oath that all lawyers take requires them to say that "we will avoid the appearance of impropriety." In light of that oath you took, how can judges justify accepting campaign contributions from lawyers who have appeared, or will appear, before them in their courtroom?

Cathy Cochran: They cannot.

DMN: Is there a problem with legal services provided indigent defendants in this state? If so, how would you as a judge seek to address it?

Cathy Cochran: Yes. The Legislature should increase funding for the Indigent Defense Task Force, and support more pilot programs for innovative ways of ensuring effective representation for indigent defendants. One recent program is the wildly successful Bexar County Appellate Public Defender's Office which provides superlative, cost-effective appellate representation to indigent defendants in San Antonio. Visit its website. Replicate its program. I hope that the Legislature will create a statewide capital public defender's office next session that is similar to this program. It tried, but failed, last session.


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