Texas Politics

Fort Worth still represented on Texas’ highest courts

File: Debra Lehrmann, judge Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
File: Debra Lehrmann, judge Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Tuesday’s elections produced differing outcomes for three candidates with Fort Worth ties, including two incumbents, in races for the state’s two highest appeals courts.

Judge Larry Meyers, a former Republican who became the only statewide Democrat after switching parties three years ago, lost his bid for another six-year term on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where he has served since 1993.

But while Meyers was witnessing the end of a judicial career that has spanned nearly 30 years, voters in red-state Texas elected Republican Scott Walker, a Fort Worth attorney, to another seat on the state’s highest criminal appeals bench.

And in races for the Texas Supreme Court, which deals primarily with civil cases, Republican Justice Debra Lehrmann won re-election to another six-year term. Lehrmann, a former longtime family court judge in Fort Worth, was appointed to an unexpired term on the court in 2010 and was elected to a full term that year.

Texas and Oklahoma are the only states with high courts that have separate jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases. A posting to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is considered the pinnacle of judicial politics in the Lone Star State, as well as a potential launch pad for higher office.

With Meyers’ defeat by Houston trial court Judge Mary Lou Keel, both courts were placed solidly under Republican control after a day of elections topped by Donald Trump’s stunning GOP triumph over Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

In addition to the victories that will make Keel and Walker newcomers on the Criminal Appeals Court, voters re-elected Republican Judge Michael Keasler to that court. Lehrmann and fellow Republican Justices Paul Green and Eva Guzman easily won re-election to the Supreme Court.

Meyers previously acknowledged that he faced stiff odds as a Democratic candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a statewide Democratic officeholder since 1994, but erroneous pre-election polls pointing to a Clinton victory stirred hopes of an uplift for down-ballot Democratic candidates such as Meyers.

Keel polled 54.91 percent to Meyers’ 40.1 percent in the Place 2 race, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections. Libertarian Mark Ash had 3.68 percent, and Green Party candidate Adam King Blackwell Reposa had 1.38 percent.

‘I’m going to miss it’

Meyers, who watched the results at home in Fort Worth, said he was saddened by the outcome but added that he hopes to return to politics, possibly as a candidate for statewide office or for the Legislature in the 2018 elections. He said he is not ready to lock in on a specific office but is likely to decide this year.

“Being there for so long, I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss a lot of the issues that have come up,” said Meyers, who was a midlevel appeallate judge in Fort Worth for four years before his election to the high court in 1992. “It’s just something you don't want to walk away from.”

A more immediate challenge is a massive cleanup to rid his court office of years of clutter and collectibles that include a largely unused basketball hoop, duck decoys, flags and mounds of discarded papers.

Meyers said he will remain in Fort Worth after his term ends in January and may consider teaching or serving as a visiting judge in Fort Worth or Dallas. He described his incoming successor as “very qualified,” saying Keel ran “a very dignified race.”

“I wish her the best,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll do a good job.”

In a statement, Keel said she is “looking forward to tackling the work of the court and [hopes] that my experience will advance the pursuit of justice on our state's highest criminal court.”

Walker, who shares the name of the Wisconsin governor who at one point was an early front-runner in this year’s Republican presidential primaries, forged a 14-point victory over Democrat Betsy Johnson, a San Antonio attorney.

‘Unbelievably blessed’

Walker had 54.78 percent, compared with 40.17 percent for Johnson. Libertarian William Bryan Strange had 2.85 percent, and Green Party candidate Judith Sanders-Castro drew 2.19 percent. Walker will serve as the Place 5 judge on the court.

“I’m just tickled to death everything went really well,” Walker said Wednesday. “God has really taken care of me in this election,” he added, describing himself as “unbelievably blessed.”

Walker, 63, lives in Waxahachie and maintains his legal practice in Fort Worth. According to the résumé on his website, Walker has written over 100 appellate briefs and has sat as first chair in more than 40 trials in district courts across North Texas. He and his wife of 42 years are conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians active in a Dallas-area church.

Walker listed endorsements from the Tarrant Republican Club and attorneys in Fort Worth and Dallas law firms. He and Lehrmann cited similar themes in their campaigns, describing themselves as conservatives who believe in strict interpretation of the law and oppose legislating from the bench.

In seeking re-election to her Place 3 seat on the Supreme Court, Lehrmann also spotlighted her 27 years of judicial service compiled as a Fort Worth trial judge and later on the high court. Before becoming a judge, Lehrmann practiced with the Fort Worth firm of Law, Snakard & Gambill.

The Republican justice drew 54.87 percent, compared with 38.51 percent for Democratic challenger Mike Westergren, a former Nueces County judge. Libertarian Kathie Glass had 3.97 percent, and Rodolfo Rivera Munoz drew 2.64 percent.