Three Republican justices are in contested races to keep their seats on a key North Texas appellate court that flipped from solid red to an 8-5 Democrat majority in 2018’s “blue wave” election.

Justices David Evans, John Browning, and Bill Whitehill are defending their seats on Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas against Democrat challengers with plenty of funding—but no appellate court experience.

All three justices are on the November ballot in the six North Texas counties—Collin, Dallas, Hunt, Grayson, Kaufman, and Rockwall—served by the court, which has jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and family appeals from district and county courts in the region.

It is essential for Texans to elect good justices to the courts of appeals, because those courts act as a “firewall” of sorts to fix occasional bad rulings that come out of the district and county courts, then-Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown (now a U.S. district judge) told Texas Scorecard in 2018.

Judicial ethics bar candidates from discussing how they would rule on specific cases, but Brown said Republican judges tend to hold a conservative judicial philosophy of applying the law as written and respecting the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government, while Democrats are more likely to take a liberal approach of interpreting the law based on changing social attitudes and legislating from the bench.

Justice Evans served on the 5th Court of Appeals from 2012 until 2018, when he was swept out of office with all of the Republicans justices on the ballot that year. Before and after his first term on the appellate court, Evans served as a district court judge in Dallas County.

Evans was appointed in November 2019 to serve again on the appeals court through December 2020, bringing over 30 years of legal, judicial, and teaching experience to the bench.

But the jurist captured the community’s attention that year for donating one of his kidneys to retired Chief Justice Carolyn Wright.

He is facing Democrat Bonnie Lee Goldstein, who is in the middle of serving a second term as a civil district court judge. The former city attorney and municipal court judge has 25 years of legal experience but no appellate court experience.

Evans has received $27,000 in donations for his election, compared to $125,000 for Goldstein, according to the latest campaign finance data reported by Transparency USA.

Justice Browning was appointed in August to serve the remainder of the late Justice David Bridges’ term on the court, which expires at the end of 2020. Prior to his appointment, Browning was selected by local GOP activists to replace Bridges as the party’s general election candidate to keep the Republican-held place on the court.

Browning’s credentials include over 30 years of trial and appellate experience, as well as teaching and writing on appellate law and procedures. He is also an authority on social media and the law and has written four books on the subject.

His Democrat opponent, Craig Smith, has been a civil district court judge since 2007 but has no appellate experience.

Smith has raised $265,000 for his campaign. Browning has raised $14,000.

Justice Whitehill is running for a second six-year term on the appellate court. Before being elected to the bench, Whitehill worked as a trial and appellate lawyer for over 30 years.

His Democrat challenger, Dennise Garcia, has been a family district court judge in Dallas County since 2005 but, like Smith and Goldstein, has no appellate experience.

Whitehill has raised $143,000 this election cycle; Garcia has taken in $63,000.

In 2018, Democrats swept all eight of the appeals court seats on the ballot, knocking out six Republican incumbents. The “blue wave” was led by straight-ticket votes cast for failed U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke at the top of the ticket. But that won’t be a factor this year.

November’s election will be the first without a straight-party option since the Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 ending the practice.

Early voting is underway now through October 30. Election Day is November 3.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.