Austin Democrat seventh in line to fill Perry’s shoes

January 19th, 2012 at 12:06 pm by under Politics

Chief Justice J. Woodfin Jones (Texas Third Court of Appeals)

Just six people stand between J. Woodfin “Woodie” Jones and Gov. Rick Perry. Six people, thanks to a 52-year-old provision of the Texas Constitution. The 1959 Emergency Interim Succession Act made sure his exact position in government put him in line to lead the state under certain circumstances.

“I think the chances are zero,” Jones laughed when I phoned his office Wednesday. “I wouldn’t even call it close to remote.”

True, a lot of things would have to happen before such a scenario could take shape. As Chief Justice of the state’s Third Court of Appeals, Jones is part of the acting governor system. Since 1876, if the governor was out of state, the chain of command fell to the lieutenant governor, then the Senate president pro tempore.

Years later, more positions were added to the succession: Speaker of the House, Attorney General, and then the 14 Chief Justices of the Texas Courts of Appeals in numerical order.

“It is curious why they would jump branches of government,” Jones said. “Whoever thought of this probably didn’t realize that judges aren’t always particularly knowledgeable or interested in something a governor might have to do. I’d have to be a quick study.”

Jones was first elected as a Justice of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin in 1988, serving until the end of 2000. He was elected Chief Justice of the court in 2008.

He is the first Democrat in the current chain of command below Perry. In fact, the two Justices before him – Sherry Radack of the First Court of Appeals and Terrie Livingston of the Second Court of Appeals – are Republicans originally appointed by Perry to their current roles on the bench.

“I’m sure I would disagree to some extent,” Jones said, when asked how his decisions as governor would differ from Perry’s. “But nothing jumps out to me that I’d want to call a special legislative session.”

In all reality, the likelihood he would ever have such an opportunity is very slim. During Perry’s recent time out of state on the presidential campaign trail, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has usually filled in, though the duty has fallen to Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte (Senate president pro tempore) for 15 days and Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, for just one day.

Jackson only came close to one gubernatorial task, so far – being briefed about an upcoming execution. However, Perry and Dewhurst were back in the state before he had to make a decision about a pardon.

If the duty ever fell far enough to reach Jones, it likely would not last long. The acting governor system is meant to be temporary.

“It’s all quite complex,” Jones said. “Kind of humorous to think I could be governor but probably something I’ll never have to worry about.”

What if Perry was elected president?

In that case (though Perry bowed out of the race Thursday), instead of relying on the acting governor system, the lieutenant governor would automatically take the helm (unless, of course, he wins his current U.S. Senate campaign). Members of the State Senate would then have to elect one of their own to serve as lieutenant governor within 30 days.

This happened in 2000 when Gov. George W. Bush won the presidential election, and Lt. Gov. Rick Perry became governor. Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, was then elected by his fellow Senators to become lieutenant governor.

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