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George Powell

Endorsement watch: The judges

After a couple of Republican endorsements, the Chron gives us a slate of judicial candidates for the Democratic primary in the district courts. A brief summary:

Singhal in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

We recommend Dinesh Singhal, 52, who has tried more than 25 cases and handled 19 appeals.

Hootman in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

We recommend Tim Hootman, 57, an experienced appellate lawyer who is known for having an atypical legal approach.

Robinson in Democratic primary for chief of the 14th Court of Appeals

We recommend Jane Robinson, 46, who is board certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Kronzer in Democratic primary for 14th Court of Appeals Place 7

We recommend Wally Kronzer, 65, who has extensive appellate court experience in state and federal courts.

Weiman in Democratic primary for 80th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Larry Weiman, 64, who has been on this bench since 2008.

Harvey in the Democratic primary for the 164th Harris County District Court

We recommend Grant J. Harvey, 55, who is a highly regarded litigator who has participated in numerous trials and appeals.

Daic in the Democratic primary for the 165th Harris County District Court

We recommend Megan Daic, 34, for a court that needs a more efficient and decisive judge.

Acklin in the Democratic Primary for the 176th Harris County District Court

We recommend Bryan Acklin, 34, who is a former prosecutor and is now a criminal defense attorney.

Martinez in the Democratic Primary for the 179th Harris County District Court

We recommend Ana Martinez, 39, who gained a sterling reputation as a human trafficking prosecutor before she became a defense attorney.

Moore in the Democratic Primary for the 333th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Daryl Moore, 58, who may be the most respected incumbent running in Harris County.

Kirkland in the Democratic Primary for the 334th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Steven Kirkland, 59, who has been on this bench since 2016 and served on another civil bench and a municipal bench before that.

Gaido in the Democratic Primary for the 337th Harris County District Court

We recommend Colleen Gaido, 39, who is a respected former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney.

Bell in the Democratic Primary for the 339TH Harris County District Courts

We recommend Te’iva Bell, 39, who has served in the felony courts from three perspectives – as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney and a public defender. H

Powell in the Democratic Primary for the 351th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent George Powell, 54, who was elected to this bench in 2016.

Phillips in the Democratic Primary for the 507th Harris County District Court

We recommend C.C. “Sonny” Phillips, 59, who has been practicing family law, and occasionally appellate law, for 34 years.

They did actually say more about the candidates they recommend, and they noted who else was on the ballot. Go read all that for yourself. As noted, Weiman, Moore, Kirkland, and Powell are incumbents, while Harvey (Alex Smoots-Thomas), Daic (Ursula Hall), Acklin (Nikita Harmon), Martinez (Randy Roll), and Phillips (Julia Maldonado) are running against incumbents. Here are the Q&A’s I’ve run from candidates in these races:

Tim Hootman, 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Jane Robinson, Chief Justice, 14th Court of Appeals
Wally Kronzer, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Grant Harvey, 164th Civil Court
Megan Daic, 165th Civil Court
Bryan Acklin, 176th Criminal Court
Ana Martinez, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Steven Kirkland, 334th Civil Court

Q&A’s from candidates not endorsed by the Chron:

Tamika Craft, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. “Velda” Faulkner, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Cheryl Elliott Thornton, 164th Civil Court
Jimmie Brown, 165th Civil Court
Judge Randy Roll, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Julia Maldonado, 507th Family Court
Robert Morales, 507th Family Court

Q&A responses from Natalia Cornelio (351st Criminal Court) and Cheri Thomas (14th Court of Appeals, Place 7) are in the queue and will be published in the next couple of days. The Chron will do endorsements for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals separately, and will not be endorsing in the County Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable races. That’s one way to get through this long list of candidates and races in a (mostly) timely fashion.

One last thing: As is often the case with these judicial endorsements, I agree with some and not so much with others. The one that surprises me is the endorsement of Judge Powell. After the big deal the Chron made about not endorsing any judge or judicial candidate who didn’t support bail reform in 2018, it’s a bit jarring to see no mention at all of that subject in this context.

Judge Powell back on the ballot

So be it.

Judge George Powell

A civil court judge Wednesday ordered that sitting criminal district Judge George Powell be included on the March primary ballot after the Harris County Democratic Party denied his application for candidacy last month.

Party officials had to accept Powell’s application within 24 hours, and he needs to appear as a choice for voters during the election, Judge Lauren Reeder ordered. But the ruling is technically temporary and could be subject to appeal by the party or Powell’s primary opponent, who was a third-party “intervener” in Powell’s suit against the party.

“I’m very happy that the judge granted our request for an injunction and that he gets the chance to run again,” said Kent Schaffer, Powell’s attorney. “Ultimately, it’s the voters who should decide who the candidate’s going to be, and not a select few people who feel like it’s their right.”

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure. A statement party officials issued after Wednesday’s ruling made little mention of the outcome, however, and pointed to issues with the election code.

Party leaders weren’t able to approve Powell’s candidacy because state rules prevented it, they said. The judge paid an insufficient filing fee too close to the filing deadline, meaning his application was denied and the problem couldn’t be fixed without breaking state rules, party chair Lillie Schechter testified Tuesday.

“The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in,” party officials said in a statement. “Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.”

See here for the background, and here for a pre-hearing version of the story, which was also covered by Texas Lawyer. On the one hand, I agree with the HCDP: The rules are easy to understand. He could have filed earlier than the very last minute, when there was no time to fix this easily-corrected mistake. The party doesn’t have much discretion according to the law. On the other hand, I hate seeing people bumped from the ballot for nit-picky reasons. The law in question should be amended to allow a post-deadline grace period to correct technical errors like this (though again, if you know you’re going to run, file at least a day before the deadline and save yourself the trouble).

This is probably the end of the story. The HCDP does not plan to appeal, and intervenor/primary opponent Natalia Cornelio does not appear to be appealing, either. Fine by me, let’s get on to the campaign. One more thing first:

Powell’s lawyers hinted in Tuesday’s injunction hearing that the party might have an interest in keeping the judge from running for re-election, even though paying the incorrect amount might have been no more than a convenient mistake. Schaffer clarified afterward that he believes Ellis is pulling strings in the local Democratic Party, and wants his employee to run unopposed for the 351st state judicial district.

Ellis and Cornelio both helped draft a landmark settlement over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail system, which a federal judge said was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor defendants.

Powell was one of 11 current and former judges in the area who were admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2019 related to complaints that they instructed hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants. That admonishment has since been retracted for unknown reasons.

Randle called the claims “ludicrous,” and Cornelio’s attorney, Mynor E. Rodriguez, said he hadn’t heard those accusations.

Yeah, that admonishment, whatever happened to it. I wasn’t inclined to vote for Powell before any of this happened. I’m less inclined to vote for him now.

After-deadline filing review: Courts

Let’s return to the wonderful world of scoping out our candidates. Today we will concentrate on judicial races. Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, and the Lege.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

I’ve actually covered all of these races, and given bits of info about the candidates, here and here. Go read those posts for the details, and here as a reminder are the candidates’ names and Facebook pages:

Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Jerry Zimmerer

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

Covered to some extent here, but there has been some subsequent activity, so let’s get up to date.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Dinesh Singhal – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Jim Sharp – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

Rivas-Molloy and Singhal were mentioned previously. Jim Sharp is the same Jim Sharp that won in 2008 and lost in 2014.

Amparo Guerra – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Tim Hootman – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

Both candidates were also previously mentioned. This is the seat now vacated by Laura Carter Higley.

Jane Robinson – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice
Jim Evans – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice

Jane Robinson has been mentioned previously. Jim Evans was a candidate for Family Court in 2014, and was appointed as an associate judge on the 507th Family Court in 2017, making him the first openly gay family court judge in Texas. He doesn’t have a campaign presence yet as far as I can tell.

Wally Kronzer – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Tamika Craft – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Cheri Thomas – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. Faulkner – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Dominic Merino – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Not sure why this court has attracted so many contestants, but here we are. Kronzer was the only candidate I knew of in that previous post; Cheri Thomas came along a bit later, and the others were all later in the filing period. Texas Judges can tell you some more about the ones that don’t have any campaign presence.

Harris County District Courts

The following lucky duckies have no opponents in the primary or the November general election:

Kristin Hawkins (11th Civil)
Kyle Carter (125th Civil)
Mike Englehart (151st Civil
Robert Schaffer (152nd Civil)
Hazel Jones (174th Criminal)
Kelli Johnson (178th Criminal)
Ramona Franklin (338th Criminal)

The next time you see them, congratulate them on their re-election. The following almost-as-lucky duckies are in a contested primary for the 337th Criminal Court, with the winner of the primary having no opponent in November:

Brennen Dunn, who had been in the primary for the 185th Criminal Court in 2018; see his Q&A here.
Colleen Gaido.
Veronica Sanders.
David Vuong
John A. Clark, whom I cannot positively identify. I hope everyone sends in Q&A responses, but I’m not voting for any candidate I can’t identify. I hope you’ll join me in that.

The following do not have a primary opponent, but do have a November opponent:

Fredericka Phillips (61st Civil).
RK Sandill (127th Civil), who in 2018 was a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Michael Gomez (129th Civil).
Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil)
Elaine Palmer (215th Civil).

Natalia Cornelio is currently unopposed in the primary for the 351st Criminal Court following the rejection of incumbent Judge George Powell’s application. That may change pending the outcome of Powell’s litigation in the matter.

The following races are contested in both March and November:

Larry Weiman (80th Civil, incumbent).
Jeralynn Manor (80th Civil).

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas (164th Civil, incumbent). Formerly Smoots-Hogan, now dealing with legal issues of her own.
Cheryl Elliott Thornton (164th Civil), who has run for Justice of the Peace and County Civil Court at Law in the past.
Grant Harvey (164th Civil).

Ursula Hall (165th Civil, incumbent).
Megan Daic (165th Civil).
Jimmie L. Brown, Jr. (165th Civil).

Nikita Harmon (176th Criminal, incumbent).
Bryan Acklin (176th Criminal).

Randy Roll (179th Criminal, incumbent).
Ana Martinez (179th Criminal).

Daryl Moore (333rd Civil, Incumbent).
Brittanye Morris (333rd Civil).

Steven Kirkland (334th Civil, incumbent). It’s not a Democratic primary without someone challenging Steve Kirkland.
Dawn Rogers (334th Civil).

Te’iva Bell (339th Criminal).
Candance White (339th Criminal).
Dennis Powell (339th Criminal), whom I cannot positively identify.
Lourdes Rodriguez (339th Criminal), whom I also cannot positively identify.

Julia Maldonado (507th Family, incumbent).
Robert Morales (507th Family).
CC “Sonny” Phillips (507th Family).

That about covers it. I should do a separate entry for JPs and Constables, and I did promise a Fort Bend entry. So there will likely be some more of this.

UPDATE: I missed Robert Johnson, the incumbent Judge of the 177th Criminal District Court (the court that now has Ken Paxton’s trial), in the first go-round. Johnson had an opponent file for the primary, but that application was subsequently rejected. He has no November opponent, so you can add him to the list of people who have been re-elected.

We have a filing failure

In typical fashion, it’s bizarre.

Judge George Powell

One of the more bizarre things to happen during the recent filing period: Judge George Powell had his filing rejected because of a filing fee mistake. So he sued.

Powell filed on the last day, and according to the suit, he was told by a party person incorrectly that the fee is $1500, when it was $2500. However, the party would not allow him to correct the mistake, so the lawsuit was filed. They did not have to go far.

Powell and his lawyer, the venerable Kent Schaffer, had a TRO hearing today. After one judge recused, another did conduct a hearing, they were granted a TRO.

Full hearing in early January.

If Judge Powell is not allowed back on the Democratic primary ballot, his challenger [Natalia Cornelio] (who currently works for Comm. Rodney Ellis) would become the de facto Dem. nominee.

That’s from Miya Shay’s Facebook page – as of Tuesday morning, I didn’t see any news stories on this. Stace notes that Judge Powell, who was elected in 2016, should have known the rules, which have not changed any time recently. (That filing fee is not mandatory, by the way. You can collect 750 petition signatures – attend any Dem event in the months before the filing period and you will have multiple opportunities to sign judicial candidate petitions for this – and pay no fee, or collect 250 and pay the $2,500.) To be sure, he should have been given the correct information by whoever processed his filing at the HCDP, and they should do a review to see what went wrong. But in the end, this reinforces two things that I and others say over and over again:

1) The rules for filing for office are well-known and easy to learn. Any marginally competent campaign professional can properly advise you on how to comply with them. There’s really no excuse for this kind of failure.

2) Don’t wait to file till the very last minute if you can help it. Had Judge Powell filed a day earlier, he would have had the time to get this fixed. As it is, his fate is in the hands of another judge. If you someday decide you might want to run for office, don’t let this happen to you. Give yourself some extra time when you file.

(FWIW, Judge Powell was admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, along with several other felony court judges, for violating state law by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants. I was inclined to support a primary opponent in his race anyway, so whether he makes it back onto the ballot or not is of no great interest to me. There were two other incumbent judges who received that sanction, Herb Ritchie (who is stepping down) and Hazel Jones, who did not get a primary opponent.)

UPDATE: On a not-really-related note, HCDE Trustee Josh Flynn has been disqualified from the Republican primary ballot for HD138. He would have had to resign to have been allowed on the ballot.

The “Has Not Yet Filed” list

Today is the actual, official filing deadline. Anyone who has not filed for a spot in the primary by 6 PM today is not a candidate for a Democratic nomination in 2020. A whole lot of people have already filed, and a whole lot more will file today – I’m going to have a lot to talk about with this tomorrow and for the rest of the week – but there are still a few notable absences (with the caveat that the SOS list may not be complete). So with that in mind, here are the “why aren’t they there yet?” list to ponder as the hours tick down.

US Senate: MJ Hegar is not yet listed. John Love, the Midland City Council member who announced his candidacy in October, has ended his campaign, on the grounds that he lacked the time and finances. Good for him for recognizing his situation, and I hope he looks at 2022 for another possible statewide campaign. Eleven candidates have filed so far, Hegar will make it 12 when she makes it official.

US Congress: Reps. Joaquin Castro (CD20) and Colin Allred (CD32) are not on the list as of Sunday evening. Some of the more recent entrants in CDs 03 and 31 – Tanner Do, Chris Suprun, Dan Jangigian – are not yet on the list. Much-ballyhooed CD28 challenger Jessica Cisneros is not yet on the list. Wendy Davis has CD21 to herself right now, as Jennie Leeder has not yet appeared. CDs 19, 27, and 36 do not yet have Democratic candidates. And while this has nothing to do with our side, the Republican field in CD22 is mind-bogglingly large. Good luck with that.

Railroad Commissioner: Kelly Stone had not filed as of Sunday, but she has an event on her candidate Facebook page announcing her filing at 2:30 today. Former State Rep. Robert Alonzo has joined the field.

SBOE: All positions are accounted for. Letti Bresnahan remains the only candidate in District 5, the most flippable one on the board. I still can’t find any information online about her candidacy.

State Senate: No candidates yet in SDs 12, 18, 22, or 28. Not surprising, as none are competitive, but a full slate is still nice. Sens. Borris Miles and Eddie Lucio now each have two opponents, the field in SD19 is four deep, and Rep. Cesar Blanco still has SD29 all to himself.

State House: Far as I can tell, the only incumbent who hasn’t filed yet is Rep. Rene Oliveira in HD37. Of the top targets for 2020 based on Beto’s performance, HDs 23, 43, and 84 do not yet have Democratic candidates. Those are if not the bottom three on the competitiveness scale, with the first two trending away from us, they’re close to it. If they go unfilled it will still be a waste, but about the smallest possible waste. Rep. Ron Reynolds does not have a challenger. Sean Villasana, running for the HD119 seat being vacated by Rep. Roland Gutierrez as he runs for SD19, has the field to himself so far. In all of the big counties, the only one missing a Dem right now is HD99 in Tarrant, which is not particularly competitive.

District Courts: Limiting myself to Harris County, Judges Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil), Ursula Hall (165th Civil), Elaine Palmer (215th Civil), and George Powell (351st Criminal) have not filed. Other candidates have filed in the 165th and 351st, as have candidates in the 337th Criminal (Herb Ritchie) and 339th Criminal (Maria Jackson) where the incumbents are known to not be running again. Alex Smoots-Thomas now has an opponent for the 164th, and I am told another may be on the way.

Harris County offices: All of the candidates I’ve tracked for District Attorney, County Attorney, Sheriff, and Tax Assessor have now filed; I’m told another candidate may be filing for Tax Assessor, but I don’t know any more than that. David Brown has not yet filed for HCDE Position 7 At Large, but he was at the CEC meeting yesterday and I expect to see him on the ballot. Luis Guajardo has not yet filed for Commissioners Court in Precinct 3. There’s still no JP candidates in Precincts 4 and 8, and no Constable in Precinct 8. And Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen is still missing. Could that mean something? We’ll find out today. I’ll have a report tomorrow.

The felony judges who abused the bail system

Shame on them all.

Three sitting judges and eight former district judges in Harris County were publicly admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in response to complaints that for years they violated state law and judicial cannons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

But the actions this week came too late to affect most jurists’ behavior on the bench. Seven left their district seats last year either because they didn’t run or lost elections. One lost re-election back in 2016.

The misconduct probes of all 11 judges began in February 2018, when the Houston Chronicle obtained copies of memos and notes that showed that for a full decade most of Harris County’s felony court judges had provided different types of written or verbal instructions to the county’s hearing officers to routinely deny no-cash bail to all or most newly-arrested defendants.

The agency’s findings confirm most bans were in effect for years and largely went unnoticed and unchallenged until 2017 when Harris County judges and other officials were civilly sued in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of poor defendants by routinely failing to provide no-cost bail in many misdemeanor as well as felony cases.(The county is now in the process of settling that lawsuit).

In its August disciplinary orders, the commission concluded that through various actions all 11 Harris County district judges willfully violated judicial cannons and also “failed to comply with the law and failed to maintain competence in the law” by instructing hearing officers not to issue personal bonds even though under state law the hearing officers had the authority and duty to do so, the orders say. Under state laws and ethical cannons, the hearing officers are supposed to consider each defendant’s case and circumstances individually.

Let’s be clear here: These judges were found by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct not just to have violated rules of conduct that they are expected to follow, they actually broke the law by systematically denying personal recognizance bonds to poor defendants. This is serious stuff.

You may say “but these are FELONY defendants!” Sure, but it’s still the case that some number of them will never be convicted of a crime. Some of them will agree to a plea deal for a misdemeanor or lesser felony for which the sentence includes no jail time. Some, regardless of how their case gets adjudicated, represent little to no risk to public safety. How big a risk they are to public safety is completely unrelated to how much cash or collateral they can scrape up to buy their way out of jail. Again, Robert Durst got bailed out. There remains a bail lawsuit in Harris County over the practices in the felony courts, and there’s a similar lawsuit in Dallas that’s working its way towards a resolution. Standard practices are going to change, because they have to change.

The judges who were admonished included former longtime Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden, who retired last year after many years presiding over the 209th District Court. The commission found McSpadden had, like many other longtime judges, issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance or PR bond requests from Nov. 20, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2017. McSpadden had previously written a letter to the Houston Chronicle in March 2018 where he admitted that “it is true I have instructed the magistrates not to grant these bonds in our felony cases to all defendants, never specifying a certain race or gender.”

McSpadden told the Chronicle on Thursday that he stands behind his decision to deny PR bonds even if it violated the law.

“I have great respect for the work of the commission. But I still feel the same way. I, as the elected judge, would like to make the decision on free bonds for accused felons rather than turn those important duties over to the magistrates. And it would take one more day to do this,” he said.

[…]

The three active Harris County District Judges who were admonished were: Hazel Jones, of the 174th District Court, Herb Richie of the 337th District Court and George Powell of the 351st District Court.

Michael McSpadden’s first duty as a judge was to follow the law. He did not do that. I don’t give a crap what his feelings were. He failed to do his job, and I am glad he is no longer on the bench.

I am not happy that three Democratic judges were also found to be doing this. All three are up for election next year, and there are no more Republican judges on the district or county courts for Democrats to aim for. But we can still perform upgrades, and these courts are at the front of the line for that. Democrats with a criminal justice background, an interest in becoming a judge, and a commitment to following the law, should look here first.

(Obligatory copy editing nitpick: A “cannon” is a big gun. A “canon” is a fundamental principle or general rule, and is the thing that these judges violated. Spelling counts, y’all.)