Endorsement watch: The Civil courts

You’ve heard me complain about the Chron editorial board’s lack of endorsements for the Civil District Courts – they did not endorse in those races in 2022, and it sure looked like they were going to skip them again this year. Turns out they were just taking their time, because on Tuesday morning we got a full batch of endorsements. Let’s see what we have.

District Judge, 125th Judicial District — Kyle Carter

Kyle Carter, 47, was among the first wave of Democratic judges elected in 2008. His Houston Bar Association judicial evaluation numbers are middling with 33 percent giving him an overall “excellent” rating and 26 percent “needs improvement.” Lawyers gave us a similar lukewarm assessment, describing him as too political. We appreciated his even-keeled temperament in the screening and he told us he goes out of his way to treat everyone fairly. This year he’s drawn two challengers.


District Judge, 127th Judicial District — Denise Brown

Elected in the 2008 Democratic wave as well, [R.K.] Sandill received our endorsement in 2018 for Texas Supreme Court when he ran against John Devine, an ethically compromised and ideologically driven justice. Sandill, 47, has a reputation for being smart and blunt. In our screening he said he comes prepared and doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time, noting that all his court proceedings are online: “come watch the livestream of the 127th and see what happens.” His numbers from the Houston Bar Association judicial poll are middling, though 30 percent of the respondents said he “needs improvement” for “impartiality.” That concerns us, as have anecdotal accounts from lawyers who told us they it necessary to donate to get a fair shake. Sandill is known for his prolific fundraising, which, again, can be a warning sign. He had more cash on hand than other district court judges in Harris County. He told us he’s spent money on implicit bias training for the Houston Bar Association and new lactation pods in the courts, but also said without hesitation that “we’re spending half a million dollars on the race.” Yes, he does have “a primary to win,” as he said, but that level of fundraising and spending undermines the appearance of a fair judiciary, especially if lawyers feel compelled to contribute.


District Judge, 133rd Judicial District — Nicole Perdue

The incumbent isn’t running for reelection and voters have a choice between two impressive candidates. Nicole Perdue, 53, graduated from South Texas College of Law and has practiced law for more than two decades. She interned with the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the chief of the First Court of Appeals. A specialist in employment litigation, she also serves as an appointed legal representative for minors.


District Judge, 151st Judicial District — Mike Engelhart

Michael Engelhart, 53, was part of the 2008 wave of Democratic judges and receives some of the highest marks of any civil court judge in the Houston Bar Association survey. His court’s non-jury verdicts, 45, and jury verdicts, also 45, since 2019 are about average, and the number of cases on his docket, 2,734, is on the lower end. He has a stellar reputation for preparedness and decorum, and his challenger, Erica Hughes, did not identify any deficiencies other than to say she would have more jury trials.


District Judge, 152nd Judicial District — Robert K. Schaffer

Judge Schaffer, 71, is the gold standard. Few judges in Harris County, or the state, have received as much recognition. He was elected administrative judge by his peers in 2013, a position he held for eight years, helping steer the courts through COVID. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee. The Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists named him judge of the year twice. He’s the highest-rated civil judge in the Texas Bar Association survey. His trial numbers and docket aren’t comparable to the others because of his time as an administrative judge.


District Judge, 164th Judicial District — Cheryl Elliott Thornton

Judge Thornton, 66, gets low ratings in the Houston Bar Association’s survey: 55 percent say she “needs improvement” for “uses attorney’s time efficiently.” She has the biggest backlog of all the civil courts with 3,988 active cases on her docket. Elected in 2020, Thornton says that she inherited a backlog that was particularly bad, not just because of Hurricane Harvey and COVID, but because the 164th didn’t have a permanent judge after her predecessor was indicted for fraud. Thornton told us, “We try to move things out as fast as we can within a year, but the reality is when I came into this court, my oldest case was 2009.”


District Judge, 165th Judicial District — Jill Yaziji

Judge Ursula Hall didn’t attend the editorial board screening for this race and let us know later that she missed because a family member had a serious illness. We understand that personal circumstances can affect anyone’s work, for weeks or even months. In the 165th, however, lawyers and their clients have had to wait several years for rulings. After more than a dozen reprimands, the 1st Court of Appeals threatened Judge Hall with contempt proceedings. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct gave her a public warning and ordered her to obtain additional education for failing to rule in a case. Her Houston Bar Association ratings are abysmal with 86 percent saying she “needs improvement” in the “rules decisively and timely” category. The court administrator figures tell the same story: only 20 non-jury verdicts and 29 jury verdicts since 2019, and a backlog of 3,085 active cases.


District Judge, 333rd Judicial District — Tracy D. Good

The least we can expect of a judge is to step aside from cases in which they have a clear relationship with the defendant.

Apparently, Judge Brittanye Morris, 33, didn’t know that. Shortly after winning the 333rd District Court race in 2020, she ruled in favor of a developer named Ali Choudhri but “failed to either disclose her relationship” or recuse herself. That finding comes straight from an official reprimand by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. When we asked Judge Morris for her side of the story, she remained remarkably composed, saying “didn’t know Mr. Choudhri very well” and that “I was a pawn” in the war between him and another developer.

I’ve just quoted a bit from each, so please go read the rest. They did the work on this, using available data and talking to attorneys who have cases in these courtrooms, and I appreciate that! Very much! It’s why I wanted them to do these. One can certainly quibble with any individual choice they made, but they gave us a lot of useful information. Use it as you see fit.

The useful information I have is the judicial Q&As. I have them for most of the candidates in these races:

Judge Kyle Carter, 125th Civil District Court
Lema Mousilli, 125th Civil District Court
Andrea Zepeda – I did not get a response

Judge R.K. Sandill, 127th Civil District Court
Denise Brown – I did not get a response

Nicole Perdue, 133rd Civil District Court
Brandi Croffee, 133rd Civil District Court

Judge Mike Engelhart, 151st Civil District Court
Erica Hughes, 151st Civil District Court

Judge Robert Schaffer, 152nd Civil District Court
TaKasha Francis, 152nd Civil District Court

Judge Cheryl Elliott Thornton, 164th Civil District Court
Joy Dawson Thomas, 164th Civil District Court

Jill Yaziji, 165th Civil District Court
Judge Ursula Hall – I did not get a response

Judge Brittanye Morris, 333rd Civil District Court
Tracy Good, 333rd Civil District Court

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