Making the Trip From the Bench to the Grass Roots

ROBERT LEE — This was the setup: Travel to this small West Texas town with the state’s agriculture commissioner and top Republican Party officials to watch them celebrate seven local Democratic officeholders switching to the Republican Party.

The unexpected part was that there were nearly as many judges as people at the Coke County Park recreation hall. The only things missing were robes and gavels. The switchers — including the county judge, two commissioners, the sheriff, treasurer, a constable and the tax assessor — were all there. So were some of the candidates running for office in the Republican primary, like Anette Carlisle, who’s running for the State Board of Education. Then there were the judges — none of them local — from some of the state’s top appellate courts.

Robert Lee is the government seat of Coke County, which turned out fewer than 1,100 votes in the 2010 race for governor. It seems like an odd place for a state judge to go for attention, unless it’s the attention of a particular audience or person.

Coke County is as Republican as all get-out: Rick Perry got 793 of the 1,088 votes cast in that race, David Dewhurst got 882 in the lieutenant governor’s contest, and Greg Abbott got 905 in his re-election bid for attorney general. That’s with Democratic and Libertarian opponents in each race, too. In a state where winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to victory in November, courting Republican voters is important.

For candidates like Jeff Rose, who is seeking re-election to the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals, it’s an important stop. It’s 307 miles from Sterling City to La Grange, on the far ends of a 24-county political map that includes Travis County, a dark blue spot on the red field of the district.

The Roses of the political world go to places like this, in part, to get the votes needed to offset strong Democratic turnout in the state capital. Rose’s colleague, Melissa Goodwin, won in 23 of the counties in 2010. Travis County accounts for two of every five voters in the district, but she easily made up for her losses there (she got 42 percent) with wins elsewhere. She’s not on the ballot this year, but she was there to watch the conversions.

The county is important enough that four of that court’s judges were here for the party-switching announcement. So was Justice Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court, along with three of the nine members of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is to criminal law what the state’s Supreme Court is to civil law.

The judges from the 3rd Court were in the area on official business, too. They heard cases a day earlier in San Angelo, just 30 miles south, and then several of them stuck around for this.

And then there was the event after the ceremony, sponsored by Dr. John Coppedge, a retired surgeon from Northeast Texas. He has a place with a spectacular view at the end of a caliche road outside Robert Lee and had invited some of the participants to come over for an early dinner. Over beers and roasted animals — a pig, a goat, a lamb — the candidates and officeholders mingled with a small crowd of residents.

Judges have to stand for election in Texas, and the same voters who want them on the ballot don’t pay much attention to them once they’re there. Unless judges wander into controversy, they’re subject to political winds they can’t control — whether it’s a Republican or Democratic year, or whether some faction within their party is excited about something.

People like Coppedge — he has counterparts from business, law firms and so on — do pay attention. While most political players focus on other races — like Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ early interest in the 2014 race for lieutenant governor — Coppedge has made a specialty of judicial races. Other Republicans look to him for guidance about candidates they haven’t taken the time to meet. Is this one hostile to business? Does that one get overruled a lot?

So it wasn’t just the nest of dependable Republican voters that attracted some of the state’s top judges to this breezy bluff in West Texas on a weekday afternoon, or the joy of watching locals exchanging blue jerseys for red ones.

It was the Republican whose blessing is important.

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