One Tuesday after the Republican primary in March, Texas Supreme Court candidate Debra Lehrmann was on stage at a San Antonio debate with her runoff opponent, Rick Green. She had just finished hoisting a copy of the hefty Texas Family Code that she annotates to emphasize her academic credentials — and repelling an off-subject accusation from Green that she had supported a charity associated with Hillary Clinton.
To neutralize the growing contention between the two candidates, the moderator tried humor. Praising their ability to stay within the time limits, he said: “Y'all aren't politicians; y'all must be public servants.”
Green interjected, saying they were “patriots.”
Lehrmann corrected him, saying, “Judge.”
That’s characteristic of the to-the-point message Lehrmann has projected throughout her campaign for the Place 3 seat on the state's highest civil court, which the retiring Harriet O'Neill has occupied since 1999. In three short months, the Fort Worth family court judge emerged from a six-way scrum of Republican primary contenders — she and former House member Green, R-Dripping Springs, were the only ones without appellate experience — to become the top choice of the legal establishment for the post. Now, with O’Neill’s early departure on June 21, Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Lehrmann to replace her. (She still has to survive a general election challenge from Democrat Jim Sharp, who sits on Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals, and Libertarian William Bryan Strange III.)
The Texas Tribune talked with Lehrmann this week about judicial elections, the recent ethics complaint filed against her, women on the bench and what happens when she disagrees with the law, among other topics.
First question: How will Lehrmann's trial court and family law background will fit in on a court full of appellate practitioners? She notes that currently, the justice with the most trial court experience is Nathan Hecht, who served five years on a district court bench before moving to the 5th Court of Appeals. Historically, she says, the Supreme Court has included justices with both trial court and appellate court backgrounds, and for good reason: Any matter the court hears necessarily originated at the trial court level. Family law expertise is also missing from the court, and Lehrmann says she’s eager to apply her 23 years of experience in that arena to both deciding cases and determining which cases the court should consider.
The court is lopsided in other ways, too. It’s all Republican — and has been for the past decade. Lehrmann says she doesn’t think that’s a problem, because no jurist should “go in [to the courtroom] with a Republican or Democratic set of ideals.”
The all-Republican court is a consequence of Texas’ partisan judicial elections, a system that Lehrmann says she “sees problems with.” It’s costly for candidates, she says, and means “huge numbers of people are voting in down ballot races for people they know nothing about.” Lehrmann also points out that under the current system, vacancies result in judges being appointed by the governor, a process that “kind of just happens in a vacuum, behind closed doors, where nobody knows what's going on."
She suggests that, like her soon-to-be colleague Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, she supports the merit-retention approach — where judges are first appointed, usually chosen from a pool recommended by a selection committee, then re-evaluated every few years — but stops short of endorsing it. She says its “one method that seems to be acceptable to a lot of the people who have lived in the states that use it.”
Such a selection system would remove electioneering from the equation and eliminate the need for judges to raise money, which overwhelmingly comes from lobbyists and lawyers, the parties most interested in who’s on the bench.
The Baytown native is already confronting the complexities of campaign contributions. After she won the April runoff, Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging Lehrmann violated the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act’s $5,000 cap on individual campaign contributions with $20,000 she received from her mother-in-law. Immediate family members — which the law defines as children, parents, siblings, grandchildren and grandparents — are excluded from the limit. Lehrmann, who noted her “pristine ethical record” on the bench thus far, says her campaign thought her mother-in-law was included in that exception. “It’s simply that simple,” she says, adding that she has since reimbursed all of the money to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
When she takes O’Neill’s place later this month, Lehrmann and Eva Guzman will be the only women on the nine-person bench. Since Rose Spector became the first woman elected to the court in 1993 (she and Raul Gonzales were also the last Democrats to serve), there have never been more than three on the court at a time. Still, Lehrmann says, that shouldn’t matter, going back to the principle she says defines a good jurist: the ability to separate oneself from any inherent biases or influences — one of which she says is gender — and consistently apply the law to the facts. She adds, though, that “shouldn't result in an all-male judiciary either.”
Lehrmann says there are times when it’s appropriate for judges to consider their own life experiences when writing a decision, but she says that’s separate from gender — that it’s not so much her experience as a mother but as a parent that gives her a perspective on family law.
And are there any times when that perspective conflicts with the conclusion the law leads her to? Yes, she says: “There are certainly many times when I study the law and I don't necessarily agree with it, but it doesn't matter. I have to apply it.”
"I hate to even say what those situations are,” she says, “Because as a jurist I don't know that I should be doing that. But you can be assured I have opinions, because everyone does. I'm just a human being.”