Time was when a pronouncement by Steve Mansfield could make headlines and change lives.
That was when he sat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court for criminal matters.
But this week, when Mansfield opined about gay marriage in Massachusetts in a letter to the editor of this newspaper, his remarks drew little attention.
And from many of those who recognized who he was, the letter provoked giggles.
The point of Mansfield's letter was that the 4-3 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court mandating the recognition of gay marriages constitutes a powerful argument in favor of the Texas system of electing judges.
"The main reason why Texas does not have a problem with activist judges acting like legislators in black robes is that Texas judges are accountable to the voters," Mansfield wrote. "In Massachusetts, judges are appointed for life and are thus free to rule however they see fit."
"Liberal activists know that the only way they can abolish the death penalty, remove religion from public life and impose gay marriage is through an unaccountable judiciary," he continued. "That is why Texans must not give up the right to elect our judges lest we become like Massachusetts."
Fallacies abound in his argument, but first let me explain why some giggled at his letter.
It is precisely this: Before he sank into obscurity after leaving the high court in 2000 and losing a bid to regain his seat in 2002, Mansfield was a poster boy for what is wrong with electing judges.
During Mansfield's campaign for office in 1994, he was caught in multiple lies:
· He said his background was "primarily criminal defense," but in fact had done very little criminal defense work. His job when he decided to run was as an in-house insurance lawyer.
· He said he was a Texas native. He was born in Massachusetts and moved to Houston in the 1980s and wasn't licensed to practice here until 1992.
· He had paid a fine for unauthorized practice of law in Florida and was once charged with marijuana possession in Boston.
· He said he had never run for public office. He had twice run for Congress in New England.
These and other embarrassing facts were published during the campaign. Yet while spending only $10,000, Mansfield beat a better-qualified Republican in the primary and then ousted the Democratic incumbent.
Mansfield himself expressed "shock, surprise and disbelief" at his victory.
He won for two reasons. One was that because the Court of Criminal Appeals handles only cases where no money awards are involved; plaintiff's lawyers and big business don't contribute to candidates. As a result, voters know little to nothing about candidates.
The second reason Mansfield won was that he rode George W. Bush's coattails in ousting Gov. Ann Richards.
So much for Mansfield's record. Now for his argument.
He says appointed judges are more likely to be "activist" in making law, rather than interpreting it.
But Texas has had its share of activist judges, both liberal and conservative. Judicial activism clearly can come not just from arrogance, but from a desire to pander to voters or major campaign contributors.
Mansfield also suggests that it is "liberal activists" who want to change the Texas system.
While some liberals have backed appointive systems, the leadership for appointing judges has come from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips and state Sen. Robert Duncan and state Rep. Elizabeth Ames Jones -- all Republicans.
Good arguments can be made for the elective system, but Mansfield didn't come close.
You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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