Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the state’s highest appellate court for all decisions on Texas criminal matters. But its pivotal role in Texas’ legal system does not mean it’s easy for voters to find information on the five candidates running for three seats on the court in November.
“The judicial elections in Texas are invisible to most voters, and so voters tend to vote for their partisanship or they tend to vote for incumbent judges whose names they might recognize,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
With high-profile races for Texas governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general grabbing the attention of Texans, voters tend to rely on their party affiliation in these low-information, down-ballot races.
“When there is a low-information election, from a political science perspective, people fall back on shortcuts,” said Mike Yawn, a political science professor at Sam Houston State University.
Voting FAQ: 2022 midterms
How do I know if I'm registered to vote?
The deadline to register to vote in the 2022 primary election was Oct. 11. Check if you’re registered to vote here.
When can I vote?
Election day is Nov. 8. Early voting ended Nov. 4.
How do I know if I qualify to vote by mail?
This option is fairly limited in Texas. You’re allowed to vote by mail only if: You will be 65 or older by Election Day, you will not be in your county for the entire span of voting, including early voting, you cite a sickness or disability that prevents you from voting in person without needing personal assistance or without the likelihood of injuring your health, you’re expected to give birth within three weeks before or after Election Day or you are confined in jail but otherwise eligible (i.e., not convicted of a felony).
Are polling locations the same on election day as they are during early voting?
Not always. You’ll want to check for open polling locations with your local elections office before you head out to vote. Additionally, you can confirm with your county elections office whether election day voting is restricted to locations in your designated precinct or if you can cast a ballot at any polling place.
How can I find which polling places are near me?
County election offices are supposed to post on their websites information on polling locations for Election Day and during the early-voting period by Oct. 18. The secretary of state’s website will also have information on polling locations closer to the start of voting. However, polling locations may change, so be sure to check your county’s election website before going to vote.
What form of ID do I need to bring to vote?
You’ll need one of seven types of valid photo ID to vote in Texas: A state driver’s license, a Texas election identification certificate, a Texas personal identification card, a Texas license to carry a handgun, a U.S. military ID card with a personal photo, a U.S. citizenship certificate with a personal photo or a U.S. passport. Voters can still cast votes without those IDs if they sign a form swearing that they have a “reasonable impediment” from obtaining a proper photo ID or use a provisional ballot. Find more details here.
What can I do if I have trouble voting?
You can contact your county elections official or call the Texas Secretary of State's helpline at 1-800-252-VOTE (8683). A coalition of voting rights groups is also helping voters navigate election concerns through the 866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) voter-protection helpline. The coalition also has hotlines available in other languages and for Texans with disabilities.
Here is what you need to know to be an informed voter about one of Texas’ most important institutions.
What does the court do?
Texas is one of two states in the U.S. with a bifurcated supreme court system, meaning there are two top courts in Texas. While the Texas Supreme Court handles civil litigation, the nine judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rule on criminal cases ranging from drug offenses to upholding the state’s “revenge porn” law, which prohibits posting someone’s intimate photos online without their consent.
Death penalty cases go directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals while other appeals cases, known as appellate cases, go to one of Texas’ 14 lower courts first. The cases that start in the lower courts can get appealed and move up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where the judges can then decide to review or not review decisions made by one of those lower courts — a privilege called discretionary jurisdiction that allows them to turn cases back to lower courts for a ruling.
Most Texans are unlikely to ever interact with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in their day-to-day lives. But judges on the court deal with several criminal issues voters often feel strongly about.
That includes all death penalty cases, in which judges determine if there were any legal errors in the previous court’s proceedings before the state executes a defendant.
Texans saw this play out earlier this year when the court halted the execution of Ramiro Gonzales. Gonzales was scheduled to die by lethal injection 16 years after being found guilty of kidnapping, raping and killing Bridget Townsend when they were both 18 years old in Medina County, west of San Antonio.
What you can expect from our elections coverage
How we explain voting
We explain the voting process with election-specific voter guides to help Texans learn what is on the ballot and how to vote. We interview voters, election administrators and election law experts so that we can explain the process, barriers to participation and what happens after the vote is over and the counting begins. Read more here.
How readers inform our work
Instead of letting only politicians set the agenda, we talk to voters and scrutinize polling data to understand ordinary Texans’ top concerns. Our readers’ questions and needs help inform our priorities. We want to hear from readers: What do you better want to understand about the election process in Texas? If local, state or congressional elected officials were to successfully address one issue right now, what would you want it to be? What’s at stake for you this election cycle? If we’re missing something, this is your chance to tell us.
How we hold officials accountable
We do not merely recount what politicians say, but focus on what they do (or fail to do) for the Texans they represent. We aim to provide historical, legal and other kinds of context so readers can understand and engage with an issue. Reporting on efforts that make voting and engaging in our democracy harder is a pillar of our accountability work. Read more here.
How we choose what races to cover
We aren’t able to closely cover all 150 races in the Texas House, 31 in the Texas Senate or 38 for the Texas delegation in the next U.S. House. We need to choose what races we cover closely by using our best judgment of what’s most noteworthy. We take into account factors like power, equity, interest and competitiveness in order to determine what warrants more resources and attention. Read more here.
How we cover misinformation
In reporting on falsehoods and exaggerations, we clearly explain why it is untrue and how it may harm Texans. Sometimes, we choose to not write about misinformation because that can help amplify it. We’re more likely to debunk falsehoods when they are spread by elected officials or used as a justification for policy decisions. Read more here.
Judges said his sentence should be revisited after a state expert said he wrongly told the jurors during the 2006 trial that people who commit sexual assault would be likely to do it again.
Because of the court’s ruling, Gonzales’ case went back to the county court where he was convicted. There, local officials will weigh the testimony's effect on Gonzales’ sentencing. He could end up sentenced to life in prison instead of being executed.
Gonzales’ case is the exception in Texas — the court has upheld the vast majority of death penalty convictions.
The Court of Criminal Appeals is also the final court in which a defendant can appeal a felony conviction they believe was illegitimate. For example, the court recently ruled on the conviction of a North Texas woman who attempted to illegally vote in 2016 with a provisional ballot while she was on parole. The voter, Crystal Mason, was sentenced to five years in prison — though her vote never counted and she said she was unaware her conviction kept her from casting a ballot.
In May, Judge Jesse McClure delivered the Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion that sent her conviction back to lower appellate courts to look at evidence of Mason’s intent. McClure’s fellow judges filed concurring and dissenting opinions on the case.
Decisions made by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals directly impact defendants and also set precedents for how lower courts in Texas interpret the law and criminal procedures.
“Even though we might not have something directly involved with the Court of Criminal Appeals, it does affect the overall judicial system,” said Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University.
The judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately have the final verdict on how they interpret the law. Judges are affiliated with political parties and are selected through partisan elections.
“So if you elect Republicans or you elect Democrats, you’re going to get a different perspective on the law because it is a partisan court,” Smith said.
Currently, all nine judges on the court are Republican. Democrats have not won a seat on this court since the late 1990s.
Judges on Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals serve six-year terms. The state’s governor can also appoint judges to complete the remainder of an unfinished term if an elected judge resigns or dies.
Texans will be voting to fill three seats in November
Three seats on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will be on November’s ballot. Candidates walk a difficult line as they campaign, trying to avoid sharing stances that voters might believe would interfere with their position as a judge. The state’s judicial code of conduct keeps candidates from making pledges on how they would rule on certain cases.
“They don’t want to get too political because that would backfire against them,” Smith said.
Candidates are also subject to campaign finance restrictions from the 1995 Judicial Campaign Fairness Act, which limits how much money they can receive in donations from law firms, political action committees and individuals who might have a stake in particular court cases.
“They’re going to run very low-key campaigns where you focus just getting your name out there,” Smith said.
This election cycle, the three judges up for reelection are Mary Lou Keel, Scott Walker and Jesse McClure. While Keel’s seat is uncontested, Walker and McClure will face Democratic opponents Robert Johnson and Dana Huffman, respectively.
Mary Lou Keel
- Keel, a Republican, has served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 2016 and is running unopposed.
- Keel belongs to the National Rifle Association, Texas State Rifle Association, The Federalist Society and Village Republican Women, according to her campaign website.
- Keel has donated to Red State Women, the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign and other Republican campaigns, according to her website.
- Keel’s endorsements include: Texas Alliance for Life, Conservatives Republicans of Texas, Houston Police Officers Union PAC and others, according to Texas Civil Justice League.
- Before Keel became a judge, she was a briefing attorney at the First Court of Appeals in Houston, a trial prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s office and a trial and appellate prosecutor, where she presided over five death penalty cases as a felony trial judge. Keel had also served as a wiretap judge for the Second Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, where she reviewed warrants for state officials wanting to “install wiretapping, electronic surveillance, or eavesdropping equipment” for particular cases.
- Walker, a Republican, was first elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2016. He identifies as an evangelical Christian, according to his campaign website.
- Walker’s endorsements include United Republicans of Harris County, Texas Petroleum PAC and a litany of law firms and offices, according to the Texas Civil Justice League.
- Before Walker was elected into the court, his law practice handled criminal litigation, appellate advocacy, civil defense and veterans’ disability cases.
How can I learn more about the candidates?
Voters looking to make informed decisions ahead of the 2022 midterms can check out the candidates’ websites and use endorsements to help guide their choices on the ballot.
“They have a huge impact. And it’s worthwhile for all voters to pay attention to what they do and who they elect,” said Yawn, the political science professor at Sam Houston State University.
The Texas Civil Justice League has a list where Texans can look at a candidate’s education, experience and endorsements. The list also links to the candidates’ campaign websites and social media accounts.
The League of Women Voters of Texas has a nonpartisan voter guide, which includes information about judicial candidates’ ethics, standards, philosophy and more. Vote 411 also has a personalized voter information tool that provides information about candidates in statewide and local races.
The Texas Tribune’s office glossary provides information on the responsibilities of the state’s top executive leaders and executive offices. The Tribune’s voter guide shares essential registration and voting dates. Our ballot lookup tool shows what a Texan’s ballot will look like depending on where they live in the state.
Disclosure: League of Women Voters of Texas, Sam Houston State University, Southern Methodist University and the Texas Civil Justice League have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.