Three Republican jurists in Harris County resigned at the end of August, just late enough so that their successors will be chosen by the governor and not the voters.
To Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, this means the Republicans don't respect the voters and fear the Democrats in the county's November election.
"This is a signal they are running scared," Birnberg said Tuesday.
But to the three judges who resigned, this is just the way it played out. All three said they knew about the deadline for their vacant seats to make the November ballot.
Resigning in late August were David Bernal, former judge of the civil Harris County 281st District Court; John Wooldridge, ex-judge of the civil Harris County 269th District Court; and Wanda Fowler, who sat on the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals, which serves 10 counties including Harris.
According to the secretary of state's office, a judicial vacancy had to be effective by Aug. 22, for the voters to have a chance to fill it in November. Bernal and Fowler resigned the Monday after the deadline, and Wooldridge's was effective Sept. 1. The next judicial election is in 2010, so Gov. Rick Perry's appointees won't stand for election until then.
All three ex-judges have gone into private law practice at higher salaries. They had varying reasons for the timing of their resignation, but said it was not inspired by fear of the Democrats. In legal circles there is much conjecture about the possibility, even likelihood, that in November, Democrats will make inroads into the local all-Republican judiciary as has already happened in Dallas.
"The Republican platform says they believe in the right of the voters to elect judges. I'm not saying they did anything illegal, but if they are concerned, why undermine voters' ability to elect judges?" Birnberg said. "The answer is: They are pretty damn afraid of what the Democrats will do in '08."
Birnberg characterized it as a "manipulation of the system." He said he was especially bothered by Fowler's resignation because he heard she was leaving the bench in May.
Fowler said Tuesday that she contemplated leaving the appellate bench in the spring but changed her mind after word got out. She said she was informed by other Republicans that if she stayed until after Aug. 22, the governor could appoint her successor.
Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.