On Friday, former Texas Supreme Court justice Harriet O'Neill sat down with the Tribune at her new office in downtown Austin to talk about her 18 years in the judiciary — including 12 on the high court — and what comes next.
O’Neill announced in August that her current term, which concluded at the end of this year, would be her last. In June, she stepped down early from the court, and Gov. Rick Perry appointed district judge Debra Lehrmann to the spot. The former justice said she decided to leave before completing her term because she thought that would cause the least disruption to the court’s docket. Since the court recesses in the summer, it would give time to her replacement to get familiar with the docket before the fall term began. Lehrmann won the Republican primary for the seat and still faces Democrat Jim Sharp, who sits on Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals, and Libertarian William Bryan Strange III in November’s general election.
During the span of her career, O’Neill served at every level of the state court system. Naturally, she was asked about her perspective on judicial elections. “It’s a mixed bag,” she said. While it’s “perverse” that judges have to raise money from the lawyers appearing in their courtrooms, O’Neill said the exercise of campaigning helps keep them connected to the public. She sees a possible alternative in a merit-based retention system, in which judges would be appointed, chosen from a pool recommended by a selection committee, then re-evaluated every few years. But she cautioned against just “moving all the politics behind closed doors” and said it’s not a reform that she believes will happen anytime soon. O'Neill also sounded off about women on the court — "diversity is always good" — and the all-Republican bench.
What will her legacy be? She said she’s most proud of the work she’s done making the “judiciary work better for people” through the high court’s administrative functions. During her time there, O’Neill spearheaded the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, which reviews and monitors the state’s child protection system. Her new legal practice will focus on appeals. For now, she said, she intends to stay out of judicial politicking and won’t endorse candidates, as many former justices have done after leaving the bench.