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Dallas Morning News - "My Ballot"


Location: Dallas, TX

Dallas Morning News - "My Ballot"

DMN: Length of residency in Texas:

Wallace B. Jefferson: 41 years

DMN: Occupation/main source of income:

Wallace B. Jefferson: Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Texas

DMN: Current civic involvement/accomplishment highlights:

Wallace B. Jefferson: "Wallace B. Jefferson Middle School" opened in San Antonio, Texas in August 2007
2007 Michigan State University Outstanding Alumnus

DMN: Previous civic involvement/accomplishment highlights:

Wallace B. Jefferson: 2005 University of Texas School of Law Outstanding Alumnus
2002 James Madison College Distinguished Alumnus Award

DMN: Previous public offices sought/held:

Wallace B. Jefferson: Justice, Supreme Court of Texas 2001-2004
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Texas 2004-present

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

Wallace B. Jefferson: Approximately $500,000

DMN: Who are your top three contributors?

Wallace B. Jefferson: USAA Group PAC Haynes & Boone PAC Herold Simmons

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

Wallace B. Jefferson: No

DMN: Why should voters choose you over your opponent(s)?

Wallace B. Jefferson: I am a board certified civil appellate lawyer with 20 years of appellate experience, including successful arguments before the United States Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of Texas, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth and Federal Circuits, and intermediate appellate courts throughout the State. Less than 1% of United States attorneys have argued a case before the Supreme Court of the United States. As Chief Justice, I led a successful effort for increased judicial compensation in Texas, which had not occurred for 8 years. During my brief tenure as Chief Justice, the Court has greatly expanded its commitment for legal services to the poor, established (for the first time in history) a Permanent Judicial Commission for Children Youth and Families, and initiated a task force to ensure judicial readiness in times of emergency. I have worked hard to establish positive relationships with the state bar of texas, the judiciary, the legislature and the press. When the Legislature declined my funding request to enable the internet broadcast of oral arguments, I partnered with St. Mary's University School of Law and the Office of Court Administration to accomplish that goal. As a result, the Court's operations are more transparent than they have ever been.

As the first African American Justice and Chief Justice in Texas history, I serve as a symbol that our State has begun to overcome barriers of the past. I believe I have earned a reputation as a fair and impartial jurist, who decides cases not based on the identity of parties but on the legal merits of the case.

DMN: Would you agree to limit campaign contributions from lawyers to $5,000 per firm?

Wallace B. Jefferson: Because contested campaigns for statewide judicial office require extensive outreach to voters, it is necessary to raise funds sufficient to purchase media for that effort. For that reason, a $5,000 limit per firm would not be reasonable.

However, I would be open to limiting contributions if the media would be willing to provide free space in newspapers, or free broadcasts on radio or television.

DMN: What value do you place on precedents? What would motivate you to deviate from a precedent?

Wallace B. Jefferson: Permit me, in answering this question, to quote precedent from our Court which discusses the latin phrase "stare decisis," a term signifying adherence to precedent: "[T]he doctrine of stare decisis does not stand as an insurmountable bar to overruling precedent. Stare decisis prevents change for the sake of change; it does not prevent any change at all. It creates a strong presumption in favor of the established law; it does not render that law immutable. Indeed, the genius of the common law rests in its ability to change, to recognize a timeworn rule no longer serves the needs of society, and to modify the rules accordingly." I generally ascribe to that view. We should adhere to precedent, and thereby strengthen the rule of law, unless there are compelling reasons to change it. We must always keep in mind that men and women arrange their affairs based on the legitimate expectation that the law is stable and predictable. But when blind adherence to precedent preserves an absurdity, or when the law must evolve with new circumstances, then it may be necessary to examine whether precedent must yield.

DMN: How important are unanimous Supreme Court opinions? What would prompt you to write a separate opinion?

Wallace B. Jefferson: I agree with John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States. As legal analyst Jeffrey Rosen puts it: "In Robert's view, the most successful chief justices help their colleagues speak with one voice. Unanimous, or nearly unanimous, decisions are hard to overturn and contribute to the stability of the law and the continuity of the Court; by contrast, closely divided, 5-4 decisions make it harder for the public to respect the Court as an impartial institution that transcends partisan politics." By that measure, I have made the grade. In the last fiscal year term of our Court, all but one of the opinions I authored was unanimous. That shows, I think, my willingness to consider divergent views, to harmonize conflicting thoughts, and to ensure a stable judgment so that the public can be confident in the continuing vitality of our judgments. As the true work of the Court is to decide cases, I place a higher priority on writing majority opinions than separate writings.

I write separately when I believe that the Court has erred and that a future Court or perhaps, the Legislature, will undertake to correct that error.

DMN: What's the most important quality a voter should consider in a jurist? For example, is it a sense of fairness? Is it an ability to reason dispassionately? Is it decisiveness?

Wallace B. Jefferson: All of the qualities mentioned are important. In addition to those, a judge should have a strong wortk ethic, a good intellect, high ethical standards, and a passion for the law.

DMN: Writing is an important part of this job. If opinions aren't clear, the public, including lawyers and lower courts, are left confused. What experiences have you had in writing briefs or opinions? Please describe that work.

Wallace B. Jefferson: I would be surprised if, in the history of our Court, there were judges who brought a more active appellate background to the Court than I have. My legal career was devoted to writing briefs in appellate courts and trial briefs in the district courts. I have authored numerous articles concerning the practice of law. In the fiscal year 2007, I wrote nearly 18% of the majority opinions for our nine-member Court.

DMN: Does the court have the right to intervene if the Texas Legislature fails to fund key constitutional responsibilities such as schools, jails and highways? If so, how does the court enforce that obligation?

Wallace B. Jefferson: "Intervention" is not the proper term. The Court decides cases and controversies that parties bring to the Court, normally after the trial and appellate processes have concluded. With respect to any matter, whether originating from legislative action or a property dispute, the Court decides if the issue is important to Texas jurisprudence and should be decided. If the Court elects to hear the case, then it must answer the questions presented. So if the case involves a contention that the Legislature has not met its constitutional obligations, and the Court agrees, then it will issue an opinion and judgment elaborating on that deficiency. Since I have been on the Court, there has never been an instance in which our judgment was not enforced.

This brings to mind a critical point. Alexander Hamilton described the Judicial Branch as the weakest of the three branches of government. His reasoning was that the judiciary has "neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments."

DMN: The perception is this court is tilted toward business. Why is that?

Wallace B. Jefferson: I contend, though some may disagree, that a judge ought not to be overly concerned with such perceptions. My job is to study each individual case on the merits, to arrive at an answer that is consistent with the Constitution and laws of the land, and then to explain in clear terms how I came to arrive at my conclusion. The end result of that process, in opinions I have written -- both majority and dissent -- has angered and pleased businesses and consumers, plaintiffs and defendants, the government and private sectors. A judge must have the fortitude to accept criticism, and the humility to reject praise, for doing the job the voters expect. Because I, like all the other Justices, have only one vote on each matter, the true touchstone is whether my decision in any particular case is faithful to the law. I believe I have a strong record in that respect.

DMN: Does this court have a significant backlog? If so, what would you do to reduce it?

Wallace B. Jefferson: The Court is not where we would like to be in terms of the docket, but we have put processes in place to accelerate our output -- and it's working. A January 2008 Texas Bar Journal has taken note. Under the subheading "A Surge in Productivity," Kent Rutter wrote: "Behind the scenes and away from the cameras, the court decided more causes in 2007 that it had in any prior year this decade. Between 2001 and 2004, the Court had issued an average of 93 deciding opinions per year. In 2005 [my first full year as Chief Justice] and again in 2006, the court issued 108 deciding opinions. In 2007, the court issued 131 deciding opinions -- a 21 percent surge in a single year." We are on a pace that I have asked the Court to exceed in coming years.

Last legislative session, I asked for, and the Legislature approved, funding for additional legal personnel who will assist the Court in clearing the docket. That is a measure of the trust the Legislature has in our willingness to improve our numbers.

DMN: What is a reasonable length of time for the court to dispose of a plaintiff's case?

Wallace B. Jefferson: The time to dispose of a case (whether plaintiff, defendant, government, or any other category of litigant) depends on such factors as the case's complexity, the number of Justices running in contested elections, continuances sought by the attorneys, bankruptcies, and a variety of other circumstances. My goal would be to issue an opinion in a granted case within a year from oral argument.

DMN: Name one state judge and one federal judge, living or deceased, whose opinions and work you admire. Why do you admire them?

Wallace B. Jefferson: Federal Judge -- Chief Justice John Marshall of the United States Supreme Court because he and his Court gave meaning to the phrase "judicial review." State Judge -- Chief Justice Tom Phillips, because he restored this Court's reputation for excellence.

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.

Wallace B. Jefferson: No.

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

Wallace B. Jefferson: No.

DMN: Do you support our system of electing judges in partisan contests? Or do you support moving to a new system, such as one where judges are appointed and then run later in non-partisan retention elections?

Wallace B. Jefferson: The Legislature has determined that Texas citizens should have the right to elect judges. The judiciary does not have a formal say in that decision. I support efforts to study whether a form of merit selection combined with elections to retain superior judges would work in Texas.

That said, I agree with an observation U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy made in an opinion issued January 16, 2008:

"A judicial election presents the opportunity, indeed the civic obligation, for voters and the community as a whole to become engaged in the legal process. Judicial elections, if fair and open, could be an essential forum for society to discuss and define the attributes of judicial excellence and to find ways to discern those qualities in the candidates. The organized bar, public advocacy groups, a principled press, and all the other components of functioning democracy must engage in this process. Even in flawed election systems there emerge brave and honorable judges who exemplify the law's ideals."

I commend the Dallas Morning News for inviting judicial candidates to answer these important questions.

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?

Wallace B. Jefferson: I will not address my particular political philosophy because those views should not impact my decision in a particular case. I adhere to the view that a judge's role is to strictly apply our national and state Constitutions and laws. A judges is not elected to impose his or her personal or political views on others.

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