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September 8th, 2022:

Judicial Q&A: Judge Cory Sepolio

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Cory Sepolio

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Judge Cory Don Sepolio of the 269th Civil District Court of Texas

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 269th is a civil court dealing primarily with disputes over property, contracts, money, elections, injuries, health issues, and business activities, among others.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

I eliminated the ineffective practice of unnecessary court appearances. The Harris County Court house is a sophisticated yet often crowded venue. Recently the relocation of courts followed by the damage to the Criminal Court House in Harvey has the Civil Justice building overburdened. With electronic filing courts should allow matters to be heard on the submission docket rather than requiring all matters to have oral hearing. The pandemic lessened the burden yet created a health risk for in-person attendance. If oral hearings are requested courts should allow participation by telephonic appearance when appropriate. The 269th under my direction embraced “zoom” and eliminated unnecessary docket appearances. The litigants should have the option of choosing how they wish their matters heard. This change saves litigants on legal fees, parking and decreases courthouse crowding.

The best practice in most cases is for a judge to give limited instructions on voir dire and then turn the questioning over to the trial attorneys. In my career I sat through some judges’ voir dire that ran as long as five hours. This was on routine, non-capital cases. These lengthy speeches by the judges were ineffective, delayed justice, and annoyed the jurors. Judges should not use the courtroom for campaigning. During my time as judge of the 269th I read the required instructions, introduce the parties and staff, and provide an estimated time of trial prior to lawyer questions. This takes less than 10 minutes and is respectful of everyone’s time.

It is my primary duty to ensure a safe, fair, and unbiased venue for all litigants, witnesses and their attorneys. This is regardless of race, color, creed, orientation, gender or country of origin. Historically judges refused to follow the law regarding same-sex marriage. Many prior judges belonged to groups that discriminated against the Hispanic and immigrant communities. This is unacceptable. Since taking the bench I have fought to ensure justice for all.

I refuse to allow those who appear in the 269th to be harassed or frightened. Everyone is entitled to a fair day in court without outside burden.

I proudly implemented a method I call the “Batson pause” in trial where I ensure impermissible strikes are not permitted. In this way we prevent prospective jurors from impermissible discrimination due to their ethnic background or gender.

During the pandemic I issued a moratorium on dismissals for want of prosecution in the 269th. Many lawyers, witnesses, and litigants were ill or displaced during the pandemic and I did not believe it equitable to dismiss their cases simply because they could not respond to email inquiries during that time.

In 2022, the 269th has disposed of more cases than all 24 other civil district courts, except one.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

When I took the bench in 2019 I shared the 269th with two criminal district court judges as a result of the continuing displacement resulting from hurricane Harvey. In the early Spring of 2020, the pandemic shut down the courts the exact day the criminal court judges were able to return to their own courts. The past four years required sharing and patience to ensure justice functioned in all courts. Despite these obstacles the 269th has performed admirably and continued to try cases. I am thrilled to finally be back in the 269th and have all facilities to continue our mission of ensuring justice and equality to all litigants whom have cases in the 269th.

5. Why is this race important?

I cherish our judicial system and earnestly wish to maintain the integrity of our trial courts. We began this campaign with the goal of ensuring that the citizens, litigants, and trial attorneys of Harris County have a qualified and fair judge on the bench. Those of us who maintained active trial dockets in Harris County were frustrated by several years of practicing before temperamental and inexperienced judges. The litigants and lawyers whom the 269th serves expect the level of preparation and justice the court currently provides and deserve for it to continue. I shall see that it does.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Campaigning this long has come at a great sacrifice to my family. The time and effort spent on this campaign is great. I am determined to win this race and ensure experience, equality, and justice for all continues in the 269th Civil District Court.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Meet Clifford Tatum

Harris County’s new Elections Administrator has a chat with the Chron’s Jen Rice about his new job and the fact that early voting starts in less than seven weeks.

Why did you start working in elections and why do you continue doing it?

I started out with the Georgia Secretary of State as a securities enforcement attorney. And after a couple of years, enforcing the securities law, the elections division needed a staff attorney. So I became the assistant director of legal affairs for the state elections division, which then worked with the Georgia Secretary of State on a number of issues related to the state election board, election law enforcement, election code enforcement. And I guess you could say that … I kind of got bit by the public service bug, and that foray into the elections division in 2002 has turned into a lifetime of public service. I enjoy the fact that I’m supporting democracy and helping voters express their voice.

When election-related topics come up at Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, two of the commissioners typically raise the argument that elections should be run by elected officials, not an appointed election administrator, which was the model used in Harris County until 2020. Do you have a response to that criticism?

If we talk about the the county clerk who was running the election side of the process, they were responsible for the election side, but they had to get the information to actually conduct the election from the tax assessor. The tax assessor was responsible for the voter registration side. At the end of the day, you’re looking to two separate entities for accountability. And that gap allows for there to be this flux of, what really happened here? So, combining the two offices, you avoid that. It now becomes a single unit that’s responsible for the entire operation. And you actually have a greater level of accountability because both operations are now under the same unit and the information flows much better because there’s not a go-between.

The mail ballot rejection rate is an ongoing issue in Harris County. What is your plan for getting the mail ballot rejection rate down and to what extent are you expecting to be able to address that for this election?

The good news is that the team here has now experienced the new mail ballot requirements for now, I think, three elections. We’ve made a lot of internal strides on how to assist voters in making sure they provide the correct information to allow their ballot not to be rejected. And then if they, for whatever reasons, fail to include that information, we’ve identified internal procedures to immediately respond back to the voter, highlighting what needs to be corrected in order for that ballot to be resolved and counted. The unfortunate aspect about all of that is time. If a voter waits too late, then there’s a likelihood that the voter can’t cure an issue if they didn’t provide the correct information.

I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll have a good experience this fall. Some of the factors on which Tatum will be judged are how well the equipment works and how easily equipment errors are overcome, how long the lines are, how many mail ballots are rejected, and how long it takes to see results and updates on Election Night. My hope is that he and his office will communicate quickly and effectively when there are any issues – it’s a big county, probably over a million people will be voting, there will be issues – so that at least everyone will have a chance to be informed and make adjustments. I intend to do an interview with him myself at some point, but that can wait until after this election.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 5

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a happy unofficial first week of autumn as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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