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judicial races

Don’t expect any surprises in the judicial races

There’s a simple reason why the Democratic candidates and incumbents are expected to win all the judicial races in Harris County, as they did in 2016 and 2018. I’ll tell you why in a minute, but see if you can guess the reason for yourself.

Harris County judicial candidates from both parties traditionally have had little control over their electoral fates, with outcomes at the top of the ballot largely dictating results at the bottom in recent years. A single party has won every county-level judicial race in four of the last six election cycles, and from 2008 to 2016, more than half the judges from the party that carried Harris County finished within one percentage point of their fellow candidates that year, according to analysis from Rice University political science Professor Mark Jones.

After Democrats Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke won Harris County by 12 and 17 percentage points in 2016 and 2018, respectively, Republicans acknowledge they face long odds of winning the countywide vote this year. Party officials and judicial candidates are encouraged, though, that Texas no longer allows voters to cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by pressing a single button, a process called straight-ticket voting the Texas Legislature eliminated.

“A lot of people do not know the judicial races,” said Kevin Fulton, vice chair of the Harris County Republican Party and the head of the party’s coordinated campaign for its judicial candidates. “Harris County has one of the longest ballots in the country. Most people do not know the difference between their county court and district court judges, and so they were just going in and checking the top of the ballot for ‘straight Democrat’ and not knowing the impact they were having on the bottom of the ballot.”

The absence of straight-ticket voting, Fulton said, gives Republican judicial candidates more influence over the outcome and leads to more people voting for “a judge that they actually know or a philosophy they actually believe in.”

Jones offered a different outlook.

“Barring one of the two dozen Democratic candidates committing a felony between now and Nov. 3, no Republican has any hope whatsoever of winning one of those races,” he said. “Even if they committed a felony, I’d be skeptical that they would lose.”

I’ve had plenty to say about straight-ticket voting, and I’m not going to repeat myself again. The willingness to believe that Democrats will somehow forget to vote in many, many more races than Republicans is adorable, not backed up by any evidence that I have been able to find, and will hopefully die a deserved death after this election.

As for the reason why Professor Jones is right about the judicial elections in Harris County? You may want to sit down for this, but the answer is because there are more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. Shocking, I know. But how do I know? Let’s use my favorite metric, which happens to be judicial races themselves, to demonstrate. Here are the high and low vote totals for each party’s candidates in a District Court, County Court, or Court of Appeals (i.e., First or 14th) race over the past four Presidential years:


2004 
Rep 524K to 545K
Dem 460K to 482K

2008
Rep 526K to 564K
Dem 533K to 585K

2012
Rep 550K to 580K
Dem 555K to 581K

2016
Rep 580K to 621K
Dem 643K to 684K

However you want to look at this, the size of the Republican electorate didn’t budge much from 2004 to 2012, and grew by less than 100K voters total over that 12-year span. For Democrats, the growth was over 200K voters. Pretty simple, no? Part of the problem for the Republicans is that Harris County’s voter rolls really started to grow after 2012, and that increase in the voter population was fueled by people who mostly vote Democratic. That trend isn’t reversing, it’s not even slowing down just yet. We’re probably going to get well over 1.4 million votes cast in Harris County this year – remember, County Clerk Chris Hollins thinks we can hit 1.7 million – which means it’s going to take over 700K votes to win a countywide race. Which party’s candidates do you think is better positioned to do that? That’s pretty much all you need to know.

Smoots-Thomas takes a plea

A sad but hardly unexpected end to this story.

The ex-judge in an orange jail uniform stood before a judge in black robes, swore to tell the truth and tried to make sense of her predicament.

“My world truly turned upside down,” Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, a former Harris County civil judge, told federal Judge Lynn N. Hughes on Thursday, enumerating the heartbreaks amid tears. Her husband’s unemployment. A house in foreclosure. Her cancer treatments. Her father’s cancer diagnosis. Two divorces. A child’s suicide attempt.

“I regret wholeheartedly leaving such a terrible stain at what is the end of a wonderful and rewarding 18-year legal career,” she said. “I truly apologize for my actions. I apologize for the stain that this has placed on my family and even my former colleagues on the bench.”

The 44-year-old pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to pay personal expenses, capping off a turbulent year that included chemotherapy, remission, a failed bid to reclaim her former bench and criminal charges last month alleging she fired a shotgun at her husband’s girlfriend. The government dropped six remaining counts of wire fraud.

Her plea agreement details how she siphoned off campaign money to purchase a Zales engagement ring and two Prada handbags, and to make two mortgage payments and cover private school tuition for her two sons. As a convicted felon, she will no longer be permitted to practice law, the only career she’s ever known, according to her lawyer in the assault case.

Hughes took into consideration her admission of guilt, her hardships and her likelihood of re-offending, and sentenced her to the 36 days she’d just spent in jail for a bond violation connected to the shooting charges, as well as three years of supervised release.

He ordered her released from federal lockup in Conroe, and made off-handed remark to a deputy U.S. marshal to make sure she got a ride back into Houston.

Prosecutor Ted Imperato, of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit, challenged the “unreasonableness” of the sentence. The judge responded, in his trademark snarky bluster, that the sentence was “pure wisdom.”

The prosecutor had requested a sentence within the guideline range of 18 to 24 months in prison, saying the defendant abused her power and authority as a sitting judge.

Imperato noted that rather than agree to a deal where she would leave the bench, “She thumbed her nose at us, and, with these charges pending, ran for re-election.”

See here and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I know Smoots-Thomas and I feel terrible for the things she has gone through. I truly hope she is able to get the help she needs to get her life back on track. I hope her children are doing all right – the story goes into more detail about the effect this has had on their lives, and it was not good. I’m also glad she lost her primary election – I voted against her in both rounds. And I hope the next time we see her name in the news it’s for something positive.

On a side note, we can certainly have a debate about the prosecutor’s complaint that the sentence she received was too light. One could argue that the guideline range is too harsh, or too limited, or that we should just let judges have the discretion to sentence defendants as they see fit. Perhaps the problem is not that she got off too easy, but that other, less prominent, defendants in her position get sentences that are overly severe. It’s a good debate to be having in many contexts.

Yes, bail reform is good

Here’s the first pieces of evidence, from Harris County, to support that.

A new report examining the impact of recent changes to bail practices in Harris County found that releasing more misdemeanor defendants from jail without requiring cash bail did not lead to an increase in arrests for reoffending.

The findings are being cited as a win by criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued that cash-bail requirements unfairly penalize poor defendants who can’t afford release from jail before trial.

Wednesday’s report was the first by independent monitors appointed by a federal judge as part of a settlement order in a lengthy lawsuit that led to changes in the bail system in Texas’ most populous county. The case has been noted by civil rights groups as the first to put America’s cash bail system on trial in federal court.

“This misdemeanor bail reform is working as intended and there are real results,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and independent monitor of the reforms. “Many more people are released promptly, cash bond amounts are vastly reduced except in cases where there will be public safety concerns… [and] there has been no change in reoffending.”

[…]

The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

Not included in the report is data on how often the defendants who were released without payment failed to show up at court hearings. Bail reform opponents across the country have used rises in missed court appearances as ammunition against releasing people on no-cash bonds. The report said appearance rates and reasons for missed hearings will be considered in future reports.

You can read the report for yourself. It’s not the be-all and end-all, as there are still questions about defendants released on PR bonds who would have had to pay bail before versus those who did pay bail, and about rates of showing up in court, but those will be answered in time. The point is, every apocalyptic prediction about murder and mayhem in the streets resulting from jaywalkers and pot smokers not being kept in jail has proven to be spectacularly wrong. Not that this should have been a surprise, since that has been the experience everywhere else this kind of bail reform has been tried, but that didn’t stop the doomsayers. In the meantime, many fewer people were exposed to the risks of being in jail for no good reason. That right there is a whole lot of good. The Chron has more.

Green Party candidate for Supreme Court withdraws

It’s not an election without a bit of ballot drama.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Charles Waterbury, the Green Party candidate for Texas Supreme Court chief justice, has dropped out of the race after an opponent questioned his eligibility to run.

Waterbury’s withdrawal notice was submitted to the Texas secretary of state’s office Monday and notarized Friday, the same day his Democratic opponent, Amy Clark Meachum, sought a court order declaring his candidacy invalid.

Meachum’s emergency petition to the Supreme Court, the same body she hopes to join, argued that Waterbury is prohibited from appearing on the ballot as the Green Party nominee because he voted in the March 3 Democratic primary.

State law prohibits candidates for state or county office from representing one political party in the general election if they voted in another party’s primary in the same election cycle.

Laura Palmer, co-chair of the Green Party, criticized the petition, saying party officials were given only one day to respond to allegations that Waterbury was ineligible to run and that Waterbury decided to withdraw on Friday.

“The filing is moot, baseless and harassing,” Palmer said.

But Meachum’s lawyer, Brandi Voss, said Monday that the Supreme Court petition was filed because of tight election deadlines after Green Party officials did not respond by a 2 p.m. Friday deadline. A candidate’s name can be omitted from the ballot up to the 74th day before an election, which is this Friday for the Nov. 3 general election, according to Meachum’s petition.

I’m not sure what the timing of all this is. The Greens (and the Libertarians) nominate by convention, and Waterbury was not listed as a candidate as of April 18, when the party confirmed seven other nominees. He was listed on their July newsletter, so somewhere in there he must have been confirmed. Once he was known to be a candidate, someone had to notice that he had cast a Democratic primary vote, and then whatever correspondence leading up to the SCOTX emergency petition had to happen. It’s plausible this could have all taken place on a compressed timeline.

This is also one of those situations where I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for the candidate who’s been booted off the ballot. Waterbury has run for statewide office before – he was a Green nominee for SCOTX in 2016 and 2014 and probably before that as well but I stopped looking – and so presumably had a passing familiarity with the rules. As with candidates who screw up their ballot applications, it’s not an onerous burden to get it right. All he had to do was not vote in another party’s primary, the same standard to which I as a precinct chair am held. He had one job, and he blew it.

The Libertarian Party has a full slate of candidates, including one for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, if that sort of thing interests you. Losing Waterbury is a blow to the Greens as a whole, because they need to break two percent in a statewide race in order to ensure future ballot access, and with Waterbury out they only have two others running statewide, David Collins for Senate and Katija Gruene for Railroad Commissioner. With all due respect to Collins, that isn’t happening for them in the Senate race – I mean, the Green candidate for Senate in 2014 got all of 1.18%, and that was with a lousy Dem candidate and with the Green being a Latina (as I have noted before, Latinx third party candidates tend to do better than non-Latinx third party candidates). It is doable in the RRC race, as Martina Salinas cleared 2% in 2014 and 3% in 2016, though in that latter race the major party candidates were the unqualified hack Wayne Christian and perennial candidate Grady Yarbrough. It might be tougher this year, and with turnout expected to be a lot higher, the bar is raised further. It’s not that Waterbury was likely to meet this threshhold – he got 1.23% in 2016, and 0.75% in 2014 – but at least he represented another opportunity. So much for that.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 1

I’m going to take a look at the July finance reports from the various state races, which I will split into three parts. Part one will be statewide, SBOE, and State Senate, part two will be State House races from the Houston area, and part three will be State House races from elsewhere in the state. I’m not going to be doing every race of course, just the ones of interest. January reports for statewide candidates can be found here, and January reports for various SBOE and State Senate races can be found here.

Chrysta Castaneda, RRC
Jim Wright, RRC

Amy Clark Meachum, Supreme Court, Chief Justice
Nathan Hecht, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Gisela Triana, Supreme Court, Place 8
Brett Busby, Supreme Court, Place 8

Kathy Cheng, Supreme Court, Place 6
Jane Bland, Supreme Court, Place 6

Staci Williams, Supreme Court, Place 7
Jeff Boyd, Supreme Court, Place 7

Rebecca Bell-Metereau, SBOE5
Lani Popp, SBOE5

Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Will Hickman, SBOE6

Marsha Webster, SBOE10
Tom Maynard, SBOE10

Susan Criss, SD11
Larry Taylor, SD11

Roland Gutierrez, SD19
Pete Flores, SD19


Candidate   Office    Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===========================================================
Castaneda      RRC    43,072    38,785   27,166      16,043
Wright         RRC   384,282    90,680   45,000     350,856

Meachum      SCOTX    51,093    44,271        0     132,303
Hecht        SCOTX   312,030   106,598        0     727,648

Triana       SCOTX    17,592     9,781        0     113,567
Busby        SCOTX   207,080   116,130        0     611,700

Cheng        SCOTX     7,637     4,033   90,174       9,292
Bland        SCOTX   264,370   106,000        0     417,335

Williams     SCOTX    14,135    47,262        0       7,466
Boyd         SCOTX   104,743   171,002        0     492,183

BellMetereau SBOE5    27,439     8,027    2,250      20,935
Popp         SBOE5    22,930    98,185   10,000      25,354

Palmer       SBOE6     6,873     9,134        0       6,076
Hickman      SBOE6     1,800     2,225    2,500       1,047

Webster     SBOE10     2,480     1,589       25       3,529
Maynard     SBOE10     3,170     1,103    5,000       4,216

Criss         SD11    22,586    14,071        0      13,644
Taylor        SD11    64,150   116,848        0   1,129,009

Gutierrez     SD19    60,074    99,208        0      11,309
Flores        SD19   295,760    65,577        0     563,459

I skipped the Court of Criminal Appeals races because no one raises any money in them. Jim Wright is the no-name Republican challenger who ousted incumbent Ryan Sitton in the GOP Railroad Commissioner primary, in an upset no one saw coming. He had $12K on hand in his eight-day report for the March primary. You can see where he is now, thanks to the Republican money machine including Tim Dunn (evil rich guy behind Empower Texans, $20K) and a slew of PACs. Ryan Sitton had $2.5 million in his account at the time of his defeat (all of which he can now donate to other campaigns, if he wants), so Wright isn’t in that league yet, but the point is that Wright wasn’t a no-name nobody for long. The establishment just moved over to his camp and did their thing. The Republican Party of Texas is currently a dumpster fire, and many of its county parties (see, in particular, Harris and Bexar) are even worse off, but the real power structure is still operating at peak efficiency.

The larger point I would make here, as we begin to see Joe Biden and Donald Trump ads on TV – I saw one of each while watching the Yankees-Nationals game on Saturday night – is that there’s more than one way to do a statewide campaign in Texas. For a million bucks or so, you could probably blanket local and cable TV in many of the media markets with ads for Chrysta Castaneda and the statewide Democratic judicial slate. I have seen my share of “vote for Republican judges” ads on my teevee, as recently as 2016 and 2018. Our Congressional candidates have shown there’s plenty of financial support out there for Democratic contenders, even those in odds-against races. There are many people who know enough to create a PAC, get some dough in the door, then cut an ad and buy some time for it. The numbers say this is the best chance we’ve had in a quarter century to win statewide. What are we going to do about that?

As for the Senate races, SD11 isn’t really competitive. It’s on the list of “races that may end up being closer than you might have thought because of prevailing conditions and recent political shifts”, but it’s too far out of reach to expect more than that. The thing I’d ponder is if the likes of Larry Taylor, and other Republican Senators in safe districts or not on the ballot this year, will put some of their spare cash towards helping their fellow partymates who are in tough races. I’m sure we can all think of a few of them. As for SD19, I’m not too worried about the current gap between Roland Gutierrez’s and Pete Flores’ cash on hand. I fully expect Gutierrez, the one Dem running in a truly flippable district, to have the resources he needs. But I’ll still check the 30-day report, because SD19 officially makes me nervous after the 2018 special election fiasco.

Nobody ever raises money in the SBOE races. It would have been fascinating to see what might have happened had cartoon character/performance artist Robert Morrow won that primary runoff, but alas. It’s just another boring contest between two normal people. Which, given the history of the SBOE, is actually quite comforting.

Why resign tomorrow when you can do it today?

News item:

After 15 years as a member of the Texas Supreme Court, Republican Justice Paul W. Green said he will retire in August — almost two and a half years before his term was set to end.

“I’m grateful to the people of Texas for electing me to the court three times, and it’s been a great honor and privilege to serve,” Green said in an interview. “It’s been a bittersweet kind of day.”

The San Antonio native is the court’s second in seniority, and Gov. Greg Abbott will choose his successor. All nine members are Republican and serve staggered six-year terms.

Green said that he is retiring early because it feels like the right time and to spend more time with his family.

“Well, I’m 68 years old, and there’s a lot of things I want to do still,” he said.

Green was reelected in 2016, and his term ends December 31, 2022.

There’s nothing unusual about this. Quite a few of our Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals justices were originally appointed, following the resignation of a sitting Justice who still had time left in their term. But timing is everything, and that led the Texas Democratic Party to make an observation:

Today, Texas Supreme Court Justice Paul Green announced his plan to retire from the bench on August 31.

If Green follows through and resigns after August 24, his resignation will fail to trigger a special election, and failed Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott will be able to choose his successor, who will be locked into a term ending in 2022.

However, if Green resigns immediately, it will allow the people of Texas to vote in a special election for the next justice on the Texas Supreme Court. There is an election coming up in November. With four other Supreme Court seats up in November, the people of Texas should be able to vote on Green’s successor and the entire composition of the court at that time.

The benefit to waiting till after August 24 is clear. Whoever gets appointed will have two full years as an incumbent, which certainly helps with fundraising, and will get to say “Re-elect” on their campaign literature in 2022. Also, if Justice Green were to resign now and open up his seat on the bench this November, that would put five of the nine seats on the ballot, the three that normally would come up plus Jane Bland, appointed earlier to fill an unexpired term for Place 6. This may be a remote concern, but having five seats up for election at once allows for the possibility that partisan control could flip, from 9-0 Republican to 5-4 Democratic. Scoff if you want, but that’s exactly what happened on several appeals courts in 2018, and with the state of the polls right now, it’s hardly out of the question.

You may say, partisan judicial elections are bad, we shouldn’t have the composition of a court flip because of a Presidential race, we need to move towards a merit-appointment-based system for picking judges, blah blah blah. We have this discussion every time Democrats win judicial elections in Texas. All I’m saying is that it Justice Green wants to call it a career, there’s no reason why he couldn’t step down on July 31, or August 15, instead of August 31. His choice of date is as much about partisan considerations as anything, and we should be honest about that.

2020 primary runoff results: Judicial and county races

Winding things up…

The big, albeit not unexpected, news is that Cheryl Elliott Thornton defeated incumbent Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, with over 70% of the vote. That honestly comes as a relief. I sincerely hope Judge Smoots-Thomas gets her stuff straightened out.

Tamika Craft led early and by a significant amount in the 14th Court of Appeals Place 7 race, while Te’iva Bell took the prize in the 339th Criminal Court.

Michael Moore was the winner in Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, winning with about 57% of the vote against Diana Martinez Alexander. These are both fine, decent, hardworking people, who ran strong campaigns and displayed a ton of knowledge about the issues and solutions for them. Diana would have been a terrific Commissioner, and I hope she runs for something again. Michael will be a terrific Commissioner, and you should be delighted to vote for him in November.

Good news in the Constable Precinct 2 race, as the good Jerry Garcia has defeated the problematic incumbent Chris Diaz. Sherman Eagleton won in Precinct 3, and Mark Alan Harrison will carry the banner in Precinct 4.

Finally, in Fort Bend County, your winners are Bridgette Smith-Lawson (County Attorney), Jennifer Cantu (Commissioners Court, Precinct 1), and Kali Morgan (505th Civil Court). In the Sheriff’s race, Eric Fagan had a 26 vote lead (out of over 38K votes cast) over Geneane Hughes. That one’s almost surely headed for a runoff.

Dems ask some Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from convention appeal

Stay with me here, this will all make sense.

The Texas Democratic Party on Friday called for four of the state’s nine Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from a case involving the Texas Republican Party’s in-person convention, claiming each had a conflict of interest.

The campaigns of Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland, Jeffrey Boyd and Brett Busby each sponsored the convention, according to an archived list of sponsors that since has been removed from the Texas GOP’s website.

[…]

Texas GOP officials are seeking a writ of mandamus from the court that would block Turner from canceling the convention, a day after a Harris County judge denied the party’s attempt to do so in state district court.

Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the four justices, each of whom is up for re-election in November, are “faced with an obligation to do the right thing and choose the law over political allegiance.”

“A justice who funds a dangerous convention should not judicially decide the fate of that same convention,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “All four have interests in the case coming before them and all four should recuse.”

See here for the background. The allegation is that by sponsoring the convention and being on the November ballot, these judges have a conflict of interest. A press release from the TDP provided the following justification for the petition:

Canon 3(B)(1) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that Texas judges “shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge except those in which disqualification is required or recusal is appropriate.”

Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18(b) requires a judge to recuse themself from a case when “(1) the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned” or “(2) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter or a party.”

I’m not qualified to assess this claim, but I will note that if the four Justices do recuse themselves, there’s still enough justices left to issue a ruling, and since all nine are Republicans it doesn’t change the dynamic. Given the compressed timeline for this litigation, I presume we’ll get an answer quickly.

Runoff reminder: Judicial races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, county races.

Let’s begin with this, because if you only vote in one judicial primary runoff, this is the one to vote in.

An incumbent judge who is under indictment and is battling for her bench maintains that her 12 years of judicial experience better qualify her in the race. But her challenger claims that someone needs to restore integrity and ethics to Harris County’s 164th Civil District Court.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton are the two candidates in the Democratic Primary runoff race for the Houston-based court. Whoever wins will face Republican candidate Michael Landrum in the November election.

Thornton claimed that because her 33 years practicing law has earned her the respect of colleagues, that both public officials and sitting judges asked her to run for the 164th District Court.

“Harris County needs someone whose ethics are not questioned and who is ready and who is able to serve, both legally and through her qualifications, as the next judge,” Thornton said. “What differentiates me from my opponent is not just the respect that people have for me, it’s also my integrity and my ability to let others be heard.”

Smoots-Thomas was suspended in November 2019 from her court by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct after federal authorities charged her with seven counts of wire fraud. Claiming this is a political prosecution, she’s pleaded not guilty in the case, which alleged she embezzled over $26,000 in campaign contributions and used them for personal expenses like her mortgage and private school tuition for her children.

Smoots-Thomas said that she’s presided over the 164th District Court for 12 years and in that time she’s handled more than 200 jury trials and countless bench trials. She wrote that after Hurricane Harvey damaged Harris County’s courthouse, she used her chambers as a courtroom space so she could keep up her court’s efficiency and allow litigants their day in court. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s helped groups distribute masks and personal protective equipment around the county, she wrote.

“Throughout my years on the bench, I have been given several awards from various groups honoring my service and commitment to the legal community and larger Harris County community,” she wrote. “In short, I believe in and strive to exemplify judicial experience, efficiency, and adaptability.”

It’s possible that this is a politically motivated prosecution against Smoots-Thomas. I can’t prove that it isn’t, and if it is there’s no way to restore equity to Judge Smoots-Thomas. But I can’t take the chance. I’ve known Judge Smoots-Thomas since she was first a candidate in 2008. I like her personally. We’re friends on Facebook. I sincerely hope she beats these charges. I can’t vote for her with them hanging over her. I will be voting for Cheryl Elliott Thornton. I will note that Stace disagrees with me on this one. I also note from the Erik Manning spreadsheet that third-place finisher Grant Harvey was the Chron endorsee in March, so I presume we will see them revisit this one.

There’s one other District Court runoff in Harris County, for the open 339th Criminal Court, featuring Te’iva Bell and Candance White. Bell took nearly all of the organizational endorsements and was endorsed by the Chron as well.

The other judicial race on the ballot in Harris County is for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7, Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas. That’s another one for the Chron to redo, since they went with Wally Kronzer in round one.

The judicial Q&As that I received from these candidates: Cheri Thomas, Tamika Craft, Cheryl Elliott Thornton. You can watch Thomas, Thornton, Smoots-Thomas, and Bell participate in a judicial candidate forum with Civil Court Judge and all-around mensch Mike Engelhart on the estimable 2020 Democratic Candidates Debate Facebook page. Texas Lawyer covers Bell versus White here and Craft versus Thomas here.

Finally, there is one judicial primary runoff in Fort Bend, for the 505th Family Court, between Kali Morgan (44.6%) and Surendran Pattel (30.3%). I don’t have any information about them, but the Texas Lawyer profile of their runoff is here.

And with that, we bring this series to an end. Hope it was useful to you. Get out there and vote, in as safe and socially-distant a manner as you can.

UPDATE: Today the Chron endorsed in the judicial runoffs, recommending Cheri Thomas and Cheryl Elliott Thornton, and re-endorsing Te’iva Bell.

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

Primary precinct analysis: Where a man can still win

Judge Gisela Triana

As previously discussed, female candidates in Democratic judicial primaries kicked a whole lot of ass this year. The four statewide races that featured one female candidates against one male candidate were shockingly not close – Amy Clark Meachum and Tina Clinton both topped 80%, while Kathy Cheng and Gisela Triana were both over 70%.

I’ve said before that blowout elections usually don’t yield anything interesting to see when you take a closer look at them. When a candidate wins by a dominant margin, that dominance tends to be ubiquitous. Still, I wondered, given that Texas is such a mix of counties – large, medium, small; urban, suburban, rural; Anglo and Hispanic; Republican and Democratic – that I wondered if that might still be true in these judicial primaries.

So, I picked the closest of the four race, Gisela Triana versus Peter Kelly, which was a 73-27 win by Triana, and looked at the county by county canvass. Behold, here is every county in Texas in which Peter Kelly won or tied:


County      Kelly   Triana
==========================
Borden          4        2
Briscoe        16       15
Burleson      340      292
Carson         59       56
Coke           33       28
Collingsworth  25       17
Fisher         79       20
Glasscock       7        5
Hall           33       30
Hansford       11        8
Hardeman       53       41
Hartley        32       29
Haskell        83       59
Hudspeth      143      143
Jack           72       70
Jasper        551      494
Kent           21       12
King            2        0
Lavaca        257      213
Limestone     340      308
Loving          4        1
Madison       132      111
Morris        345      274
Motley          5        5
Newton        160      134
Oldham         18       18
Red River     208      191
Roberts         5        4
Rusk          861      776
San Augustine 219      172
Shelby        187      182
Stonewall      35       19
Wilbarger     130      129

So there you have it. Congratulations to Fisher County, in what I would call the southern end of the panhandle, for being the most pro-dude part of the state, and to Rusk County in East Texas for being the largest pro-dude county. There were two counties in which each candidate got at least a thousand votes that were fairly close:


County      Kelly   Triana
==========================
Gregg       2,028    2,159
Harrison    1,182    1,484

I did not check the other races, on the assumption that there would be fewer such examples in those less-close contests. None of this is intended as a comment on the quality of the candidates – the Dems had a robust lineup of well-qualified contenders this cycle. I don’t think that this kind of “analysis”, if one can call it that, tells us anything useful, but I do think there’s value in examining the silly side of politics now and then. I’ve also had this sitting in my drafts since mid-March and felt like it was finally time to publish it. I hope you enjoyed this little exercise in said silliness.

Judges have to do their part

Some could be doing better.

Harris County’s largest association of criminal defense attorneys on Monday called on local judges to halt in-person court appearances to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

As the virus has swept across the nation, it has shut down wide swaths of everyday life. But in Harris County — where judges last month halted jury trials and many other court functions — some criminal judges have continued to require in-person court hearings and in-person reporting to pre-trial services.

Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Neal A. Davis wrote that such policies present a “threat to public safety and the impartial administration of justice.”

In the four-page letter — which was sent to the county’s 22 state district judges and 16 misdemeanor judges, Davis noted that video appearances are “easy and routine now,” and that local prosecutors are expressly forbidden from appearing in courtrooms, except in “the rarest of occasions.”

“For a Harris County Judge to require one party to physically appear and risk exposure to a deadly pathogen, and allow the other party to appear remotely, violates a judge’s appearance of impartiality, at a minimum,” Davis wrote.

[…]

Local defense attorney Patrick McCann said that while many misdemeanor judges were taking measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, some district judges “have not thought through the implications of everything they’ve been asking the defense bar to do.”

“I’m glad the HCCLA is finally standing up for the average solo (attorney) that’s trying to keep safe, keep their family safe and still do a good job for their clients,” he said.

This is one of those things that should have gone without saying, but clearly we need to say it. It’s clearly unfair to have different rules for each side, and when those different rules put some people’s lives at risk, there’s really no excuse. The story does not indicate which judges are the offenders here, but I’m sure the names are known. All I can say is that the next time these judges come up for election, I would very much like to know who was doing the right thing and who was not. I hope that the various endorsing organizations will take that into account, and more to the point be as transparent as they can about it. I know that most people who vote in judicial elections don’t know a whole lot about the candidates in question. That doesn’t mean the information that is relevant to us shouldn’t be available. Please make sure that it is.

Does getting to 40% make you likely to win the runoff?

Anna Eastman

I was talking with some fellow political nerds last week, and one of the topics was the forthcoming runoffs. As is usually the case, this year we have some runoffs between candidates who finished fairly close together in round one, and some in which one candidate has a clear lead based on the initial election. The consensus we had was that candidates in the latter category, especially those who topped 40% on Super Tuesday, are basically locks to win in May. The only counter-example we could think of off the tops of our heads was Borris Miles beating Al Edwards, who had been at 48%, in the 2006 runoff for HD146.

So, later on I spent a few minutes on the Secretary of State election archive pages, looking through past Democratic primary results and tracking those where the leader had more than forty percent to see who went on to win in the runoff. Here’s what I found:

2018

Winners – CD03, CD10, CD23, CD31, Governor, SD17,
Losers – CD27, HD37, HD45, HD64, HD109*, HD133*

2016

Winners – CD15, HD27
Losers – SBOE6

2014

Winners – Senate, SBOE13
Losers – HD105

2012
Winners – CD34, HD95, HD137
Losers – CD23*, SBOE2

2010
Winners – CD10, HD76*

2008
Winners – CD32, RRC

2006
Winners – Senate, Lt Gov, HD42, HD47*
Losers – HD146

In each of the cited races, the leading candidate had at least 40% of the primary vote. Races that have asterisks indicate that the runnerup also had at least 40%. As you can see, up until 2018, having forty percent or more in the primary was indeed a pretty good indicator of success in overtime. The last cycle provided quite a few counterexamples, however, including one incumbent (Rene Oliveira, who had been busted for a DWI earlier) who went down. So maybe 40% isn’t such a magical number, or maybe it’s harder now than it was before 2012. Or maybe this is just a really small sample and we should be careful about drawing broad conclusions from it.

Fortunately, we have quite a few races this year to add to this sample:

CD03 – Lulu Seikaly 44.5%, Sean McCaffity 43.8%
CD10 – Mike Siegel 44.0%, Pritesh Gandhi 33.1%
CD13 – Gus Trujillo 42.2%, Greg Sagan 34.7%
CD17 – Rick Kennedy 47.9%, David Jaramillo 35.0%
CD24 – Kim Olson 40.9%, Candace Valenzuela 30.4%
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer 46.8%, Kimberly McLeod 34.6%
SD19 – Xochil Pena Rodriguez 43.7%, Roland Gutierrez 37.3%
SD27 – Eddie Lucio 49.8%, Sara Stapleton-Barrera 35.6%
HD119 – Liz Campos 46.1%, Jennifer Ramos 43.7%
HD138 – Akilah Bacy 46.7, Jenifer Pool 29.3%
HD142 – Harold Dutton 45.2%, Jerry Davis 25.3%
HD148 – Anna Eastman 41.6%, Penny Shaw 22.1%
138th District Court – Gabby Garcia 48.0%, Helen Delgadillo 31.0%
164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton 41.3%, Alexandra Smoots-Thomas 33.1%

I’ll be sure to do an update in May, when we can see if the leading candidates mostly held serve or not. Place your bets.

Look out! Here come the lady judges!

Everybody scream!

In Democratic judicial primaries last Tuesday, Dayna beat David, Jane trounced Jim, and Colleen got more support than John, David and Brennen combined. Is that all there was to it?

Men have dominated Texas courts for decades. Now, in Democratic-controlled areas of the state, they seem headed for extinction.

The corrective for years of gender inequity on the bench has proven rather simple: voters.

Women have disappeared from the high-octane Democratic presidential primary. But in down-ballot, low-information races, Texas Democrats are increasingly, consistently backing women over men. In last week’s Democratic primary, women won more votes than men in all of the roughly 30 gender-split contests for high court, court of appeals and district court, according to results from the Texas Secretary of State. Rarely was it even close.

In urban areas, Democrats typically beat Republicans in the general election. So if Democratic men can’t beat Democratic women in judicial primaries, the bench in Texas cities is likely to become a lot more female. Democratic men won primary races for high court, courts of appeals or district courts only when they were uncontested or facing a male opponent.

Some voters may have chosen women candidates because of their superior qualifications or experience. But experts say it’s likely that many of them just looked at two unfamiliar names and chose the one that sounded like a woman.

“Maybe they knew nothing, maybe they knew that they were both equal, but all things being equal, they went with the woman,” said Elsa Alcala, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “People are voting based on some characteristic that’s apparent from the ballot as compared to knowing who these people really are.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. This issue was important enough that the Chron and Texas Lawyer also devoted feature stories to it.

Look, I get it, judicial elections can be quite random, most people don’t know much about the candidates they’re voting for, yadda yadda yadda. There really were multiple good judges ousted, and that is a shame. It also is what it is, and as I’ve said before, the same mercurial partisan election system that unceremoniously dumped these good judges also elected them in the first place. This is my reminder that while there have been calls since at least 2008 (the first year since the early 90s that Democrats started winning judicial elections in Harris County, mind you) for some kind of different selection process for judges, no one has yet come up with an actual concrete proposal. There is now a blue-ribbon Judicial Selection Commission that is tasked with proposing such a method; I see no reason to trust it and recommend you do the same. I could be wrong, they could come up with something that minimizes cronyism while rewarding merit and promoting diversity, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

By the way, there were seven male Democratic judges who did not draw a primary opponent this cycle: Kyle Carter, RK Sandill, Michael Gomez, Mike Engelhart, Robert Schaffer, Robert Johnson, and Darrell Jordan. If Democrats maintain their recent dominance in Harris County, then we will see those seven men along with 20 women elected to district and county court benches this year. Back in 2004, the last time in a Presidential year that Republicans swept the judicial races, there were also 27 such elections. That year, 20 men and seven women were elected. I admit my memory isn’t what it once was, but I’m pretty sure there weren’t multiple articles written about how hard it was to get elected judge as a woman in Harris County back then.

My point is, let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. There were still 30 male judges elected in 2018, out of 59 total, 29 of whom are still on the bench (Bill McLeod of accidental resignation fame was the 30th). If after the 2024 election there are zero men on the district or county court benches in Harris County, then maybe there’s a problem. And I’m sure in another hundred years or so, society will evolve to the point where it can be remedied. History shows that you can’t rush these things, after all.

(And yes, the irony of these stories running within days of Elizabeth Warren suspending her Presidential campaign is…something.)

Runoff roundup

Here, as best as I can determine, are the runoffs of interest for May:

US Senate – MJ Hegar versus Royce West

CD02 – Sima Ladjevardian versus Elisa Cardnell
CD03 – Lulu Seikaly versus Sean McCaffity
CD10 – Mike Siegel versus Pritesh Gandhi
CD17 – Rick Kennedy versus David Jaramillo (D), Pete Sessions versus Renee Swann (R)
CD22 – Troy Nehls versus Kathaleen Wall (R)
CD23 – Tony Gonzales versus Raul Reyes (R)
CD24 – Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela
CD31 – Christine Eady Mann versus Donna Imam

Note that Wendy Davis (CD21), Sri Kulkarni (CD22), Gina Ortiz Jones (CD23), and on the Republican side Wesley Hunt (CD07) all won outright. I skipped a couple of Republican runoffs in safe D districts, because life is short.

Railroad Commissioner – Chrysta Castaneda versus Roberto Alonzo

SBOE5 – Robert Morrow versus Lani Popp (R, wackadoo versus what passes for normal)
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer versus Kimberley McLeod

SD19 – Xochil Peña Rodriguez versus Roland Gutierrez
SD27 – Eddie Lucio versus Sara Stapleton-Barrera

Didn’t mention this yesterday, but Susan Criss prevailed in SD11.

HD02 – Dan Flynn versus Bryan Slaton (R)
HD25 – Ro’Vin Garrett versus Cody Vasut (R, this is Dennis Bonnen’s old seat)
HD26 – Suleman Lalani versus Sarah DeMerchant (D), Matt Morgan versus Jacey Jetton (R)
HD45 – Carrie Isaac versus Kent Wymore (R)
HD47 – Jennifer Fleck versus Don Zimmerman (R)
HD59 – Shelby Slawson versus JD Sheffield (R)
HD60 – Jon Francis versus Glenn Rogers (R)
HD67 – Tom Adair versus Lorenzo Sanchez
HD100 – Lorraine Birabil versus Jasmine Crockett
HD119 – Liz Campos versus Jennifer Ramos
HD138 – Akilah Bacy versus Jenifer Pool
HD142 – Harold Dutton versus Jerry Davis
HD148 – Anna Eastman versus Penny Shaw

Note that in that HD47 primary, one (1) vote separates second and third place, according to the Travis County Clerk. I assume there will be a recount, and even before then late-arriving mail ballots could change this. In the event of an actual tie, there will be a coin flip to determine who goes to the runoff. I’m rooting so hard for that outcome, you guys.

In the HD67 primary, 63 votes separate Lorenzo Sanchez and Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, or 0.3 percentage points. I would expect a recount there as well, but with a far lesser chance of affecting the outcome.

Lorraine Birabil was the winner of the special election in HD100 to fill out the unexpired term of Eric Johnson, who is now Mayor of Dallas. Anna Eastman was the winner of the special election in HD148 to succeed Jessica Farrar.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 7 – Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas

164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton versus Alex Smoots-Thomas
339th Criminal Court – Te’iva Bell versus Candance White

County Commissioner, Precinct 3 – Diana Martinez Alexander versus Michael Moore

Moore was leading most of the night, but Alexander caught and passed him as final results came in. I don’t care to go through the various Constable and JP races, but the good Jerry Garcia was leading problematic incumbent Chris Diaz going into the Precinct 2 Constable runoff.

Whatever turnout there will be in the runoffs will be driven primarily by the Dem Senate race and the Congressional races on both sides. Won’t be much, but it ought to be a bit more than usual, and surely more on the D side if there were no Senate runoff.

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

Judicial Q&A: Veronica Rivas-Molloy

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Veronica Rivas-Molloy

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Veronica Rivas-Molloy. I am honored and proud to ask for your support to become a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, Place 3.

I am a wife, a mother of three young sons, a proud immigrant to this country, and a practicing attorney of almost 20 years. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, the first to obtain an advanced degree, and the first attorney. If elected, I will be the first judge in my family, the first Democratic elected Hispanic attorney to serve on the First Court of Appeals, and only the second Latina to serve on the court in 128 years, bringing much needed diversity to our appellate bench.

I have a degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish (with honors) from the University of Texas at El Paso. I graduated with honors and at the top of my law school class from the University of Houston Law Center. After graduation, I secured a highly coveted position as a judicial clerk in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, gaining invaluable experience. For the last 17 years, I have worked at top-tier law firms representing my clients in litigation and appellate matters in Texas and other jurisdictions in the United States. I have handled hundreds of complex litigation matters involving various industries and areas of the law, tried over 20 jury cases (including civil, criminal, and immigration matters), and counseled my clients on a variety of appellate matters. My experience is extensive and it has prepared me well for the position I now seek.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

There are 14 Courts of Appeals in Texas, each presiding over a specific geographic territory. The First Court of Appeals is located in Houston, Texas. The Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices preside over the court and hear civil and criminal (except death penalty) appeals originating from trial courts in 10 counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I want to serve my community and give back to the legal profession that gave me a voice and the opportunity to advocate on behalf of others. I have a passion for what I do, and I want to use my skills and experience to give back to our community and serve our judicial system, for which I have profound respect. I also want to bring my wealth of experience and diverse voice to our appellate bench, where I feel I can make a meaningful contribution.

On a personal level, I also want to set an example for my children and diverse youth who may be considering a career in law. I want them to know the importance of civic duty and service, and for them to grow up knowing that immigrants, mothers, and diverse attorneys can be Justices and serve our communities with integrity, excellence, and hard work.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for almost 20 years, handling a wide-variety of complex business disputes throughout Texas and other jurisdictions in the United States. I have represented numerous clients in state and federal courts, including county courts at law, district courts, appellate courts, and before domestic and international arbitral tribunals in disputes involving oil and gas operations, real estate, healthcare, construction, personal injury, employment matters, trade secrets, non-compete and restrictive covenants, and a diverse range of complex contractual and business-related matters. I have met the highest and most rigorous standards at all levels of my legal profession: student, law clerk, and legal practitioner.

I graduated with honors from the University of Texas at El Paso with a double degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish. I graduated from the University of Houston Law Center with honors and at the top of my law school class, where I served as an Article Editor on the Law Review, a Prosecutor on the Honor Court, the Vice President of the Hispanic Student Bar Association, and a Class Representative for the Student Bar Association.

After graduation, I secured a highly coveted position as a judicial clerk working for the Honorable Ewing Werlein, Jr. in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, where I gained invaluable experience working on a significant number of civil litigation matters. I worked on procedural and substantive matters assisting the court with trials, dispositive motions, jurisdictional disputes, evidentiary hearings, expert challenges, injunction hearings, pre-trial matters, jury charges, findings of fact, and conclusions of law. I engaged in rigorous legal analysis and extensive brief writing, drafting recommendations on the myriad of cases and legal matters presented to the court over the course of two years.

Working in court also helped me understand not only the importance of having open access to our courts and the significance of the rule of law to our democracy, but also the importance of staffing and administration of a court’s docket to ensure efficient, fair and prompt resolution of pending cases. I also understood very early on that judges are servants of our judicial system, and, that as such, they have a duty to rule with impartiality, justice, equality, and with utmost respect for our judicial system. I learned the importance of having proper judicial temperament, and the importance of excellence, hard work and integrity.

Following my clerkship, I worked at the law firm of Baker Botts, LLP, where I continued to work on various litigation matters helping further refine my analytical, oral, and written advocacy skills. I represented clients across different industries in matters involving general commercial litigation and complex business disputes. I also served as a volunteer prosecutor for the City of Houston, where I managed the docket of the court (first-chair) once a week, engaging in various matters, such as plea bargaining, interfacing with defense counsel, working with court staff, officers, and witnesses, and trying numerous cases to the jury involving administrative and criminal matters.

For the last 10 years, I have worked at the law firm of Jones Walker, LLP, advocating for my clients and representing them on a diverse range of complex business disputes and appellate matters. I represent clients in state and federal courts across Texas, and other jurisdictions in the United States, including county courts at law, district courts, appellate courts, and arbitral tribunals. I have first-chair experience handling a significant number of bench and jury civil matters, helping my clients develop legal strategy and conduct fact discovery and investigations, motion practice, depositions, preparation and presentation of witnesses and experts, evidentiary hearings, expert challenges, legal briefs, jury charges, pre-trial matters, mediations, arbitrations, trial, and appeals in a wide-variety of complex business disputes.

My significant experience in civil litigation makes me uniquely suited to be a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, because more than half of all appeals filed before that court involve civil matters, including complex business disputes like the ones I have been handling for years. It is important to elect judges who have a robust civil litigation practice and experience in trial courts, from which these civil appeals originate. I have that experience. In addition, it is vital that we elect judges who have strong written advocacy skills. As a litigator and former law clerk, a significant part of my practice has been devoted to rigorous legal analysis and extensive written advocacy.

In addition to my litigation practice, I work directly with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) providing pro bono representation to unaccompanied minors in their immigration and asylum proceedings. I also serve as General Counsel for Holy Trinity Episcopal School of Greater Houston, where I provide pro bono legal advice and representation to the school on various matters. I am also actively involved in my sons’ schools, having served on their parent teacher organizations, volunteering on multiple committees and special projects, and volunteering as their catechism teacher at our church.

5. Why is this race important?

Our courts of appeals hear significant cases that affect not only the parties before the court, but our communities at large. The decisions appellate courts render also influence our jurisprudence on a statewide level because they set the precedent our lower courts and legal practitioners apply and follow in their daily practice. It is important to elect judges who have a proven record of success, high qualifications for the job, and a commitment to doing the hard work necessary to give each case the attention it deserves for the parties, our communities, and the integrity of our judiciary and system of laws.

It is also vital that our courts reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. No attorneys of color presently serve on the First Court of Appeals, which presides over some of the most diverse counties and cities in our country. It is imperative that we improve the diversity of our appellate bench. Diversity not only enhances our judiciary by ensuring that different life perspectives and experiences form part of the decision-making process when ruling on significant legal issues, it also helps enhance the public perception and legitimacy of our judicial system.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have significant experience and the skill set necessary to be an excellent Justice on the First Court of Appeals. My record of success is a testament to the quality of work and commitment I will bring to the bench.

I have a strong work ethic and self-discipline, both of which have served me well and have resulted in my success as an attorney. I have achieved not only academic success in my career, graduating with honors and at the top of my law school class, but also professional success, securing a federal clerkship and working at top-tier firms, providing legal advice to my firm clients and also giving back by representing indigent clients on a pro bono basis in various matters. I will bring that same work ethic and discipline to the bench to ensure diligent, fair, and prompt resolution of matters before the court.

I have a reputation for producing high caliber legal work, and for professionalism, always working with the utmost respect for my colleagues, clients, and adversaries. I strive to work with integrity and the highest ethical standards at all times—values that are the foundation of my legal career and should be at the core of any judicial candidate or jurist. If excellence, hard work, and integrity are values that resonate with you, then I ask for your vote. Those values have defined me as a person and professional, and they will guide me as a Justice on the First Court of Appeal serving you and our community. I hope to earn your trust and your vote. It will be a privilege to serve you and our judiciary.

Statesman overview of the statewide judicial races

It’s good to have a full slate of qualified candidates.

After years of trouble scraping together enough candidates to run for seats on both statewide courts, Texas Democrats have the opposite situation in 2020 — contested primaries in almost every race.

In all four races for the Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil court, two Democrats are vying to challenge Republican incumbents.

And for the state’s top criminal court, multiple Democrats are running in two of three available races for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The renewed Democratic interest comes after the party’s court candidates lost by 6 to 8 points in 2018 — defeats that seem strong after the party’s judicial candidates were drubbed by an average of 24 points in 2010.

As an added incentive, Democratic judicial candidates tend to do better in presidential election years like 2020.

Contested primaries are a mixed blessing, offering an opportunity to improve name recognition but depleting campaign coffers, particularly in Supreme Court races in which GOP incumbents can raise more than $1 million in contributions, largely from civil lawyers and law firms. In contrast, races for the Court of Criminal Appeals tend to be low-cost affairs.

Let me start by saying once again that the “contested primaries are resource drains” narrative continues to be tiresome, and in a year where a lot of people will be voting in the primary it’s very much a good thing for voters to have some idea of who you are ahead of November. There are brief writeups of each candidate, not much more than that, but it’s a start. I have Q&A responses from a couple of the candidates, Judge Amy Clark Meachum (Supreme Court, Chief Justice) and Steve Miears, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4. Texas Lawyer has Q&As with nearly all of these candidates as part of their judicial race coverage. Their Supreme Court candidate Q&As are here and for the Court of Criminal Appeals here. The Erik Manning spreadsheet shows everyone’s endorsements, and as you can see there were a lot of split decisions.

One race has drawn a bit more heat than the others, the Supreme Court Chief Justice primary.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Jerry Zimmerer, a Houston appeals court justice running for Texas Supreme Court, said his Democratic primary opponent, Amy Clark Meachum, has “selfish” motivations for running, pointing to the fact that she has cast her campaign to be the first woman elected chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court as a historic one.

“I just think somebody who wants to try to break barriers for their own benefit is not going to be successful,” Zimmerer told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday. “I just don’t think that’s what voters are looking for. … I just think that’s a goal she wants to achieve for herself.”

He said his campaign is different because “I actually want the best candidate to win.”

“I may not be the first anything, but I’m going to be the best,” he said.

Meachum said Zimmerer “should run on his own record instead of attacking mine.” Throughout her campaign, Meachum has said she hopes to restore balance to the all-Republican court and champion women in the legal profession.

“If he chooses to disparage a more qualified and experienced judge because of her gender, he’ll find himself on the wrong side of history,” she said. “These sorts of sexist comments are straight from the 1950s.”

[…]

In a state bar poll that gauges Texas attorneys’ support for judicial candidates, Meachum won more favor than Zimmerer, with 1,779 votes to his 326. The Republican incumbent, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, won 2,706 votes.

Meachum has said she is the Democrats’ best chance at winning a seat on the high court for the first time in more than two decades.

“I don’t exactly look like or sound like my primary opponent, my general election opponent, or any of the men who have previously been elected Chief Justice,” she said in a Houston Chronicle questionnaire. “I am making an important statement for women in the law and women in our party in 2020 and I would appreciate your support!”

Reached Friday for comment, Zimmerer said, “As someone who has traveled the state trying to pull together all the different groups that make up the Texas Democratic Party into a cohesive coalition, I have concerns with those who would seek to divide us.”

Yeah, put me down in support of Judge Meachum on this one. I know both of these candidates and I like them both, but I disagree with Justice Zimmerer’s argument. We’ll see what the voters think.

Judicial Q&A: Colleen Gaido

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Colleen Gaido

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Colleen Gaido and I am running for the Harris County 337th Criminal District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 337th hears all manner of felonies, from state jail felonies like burglary of a building and possession of a controlled substance to first degree felonies such as murder and aggravated robbery.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I was actually on maternity leave when colleagues from both the Defense bar and the District Attorney’s office reached out to me to let me know that the current judge, Judge Ritchie, was retiring and to encourage me to run. I am running because I care deeply about criminal justice in our community and I believe that I have the experience, temperament and progressive values to be an excellent judge for the residents of Harris County.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Since graduating from the University of Houston Law Center in 2007 I have practiced criminal law exclusively. I began my career at the District Attorney’s Office where I tried dozens of jury trials, including capital murders, robberies and sexual assaults of children. I was also asked to teach at the state and local level on trial skills and prosecutorial ethics. In 2017 I left the District Attorney’s office to practice criminal defense. I have dedicated my practice to solely representing those who cannot afford counsel. This work has brought me a welcome change in perspective on the criminal justice system, the bail system and the effects of mass incarceration on our communities.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because Harris County has made great progress in its criminal justice system and that progress needs to continue. The judge in a criminal court must ensure several things, including ensuring that people’s Constitutional rights are protected; that bail is not used to punish defendants pretrial or as leverage to get defendants to plead guilty; that their court runs efficiently, goes to trial regularly, and gives scheduling priority to those accused who are being held pretrial; that defendants have access to excellent and zealous representation; and that everyone who appears before them is treated with dignity and respect. When a judge fails to do these things the system fails the community, and the community loses faith in that system.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

First, I’ve worked extensively in Criminal District Courts. I’ve handled hundreds of felony cases as a prosecutor and defense attorney, and practicing on both sides of has given me knowledge and a unique perspective that will assist me in being an informed, impartial judge. While that experience means that I know the law, it has not made me blind to the criminal justice system’s faults or weary of striving to make the system better for everyone involved.  Lastly, I have the temperament to treat everyone who comes before me with dignity and respect, and the work ethic to keep working diligently for the county long after I am elected.

Judicial Q&A: Amparo Monique Guerra

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Amparo Monique Guerra

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Amparo Monique Guerra and I am running for Justice, First Court of Appeals, Place 5. I am a lawyer, judge, mom of three children, and wife. I am the first Hispanic partner in my law firm. I have 17 years’ experience as a litigator, at both the trial and appellate levels, in state and federal courts throughout Texas and the U.S. I handle complex cases for a wide range of clients, from individuals to large multi-national corporations. When I was originally appointed to be a Municipal Judge for the City of Houston in 2005, I was the youngest sitting judge on the court, having been appointed at 28 years old.

I am a graduate of Rice University (double-major in Sociology and Latin American Studies), where I was on the President’s Honor Roll. I obtained my J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center, which awarded me a Dean’s Merit Scholarship, as well as Public Interest Fellowships to work with Texas Rural Legal Aid, and with Farmworker Legal Services in Michigan.

I clerked for a U.S. District Judge immediately following law school. I look forward to bringing my background, strong work ethic, and experience as a lawyer and a judge to the Court of Appeals.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The intermediate courts of appeals hear civil cases (including, but not limited to, business, family, probate, and personal injury) and criminal cases (except death penalty cases, which are appealed directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) from the trial courts throughout a ten-county district, which includes Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington Counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Public service has always been a passion of mine. My mother (Retired Justice Linda Yanez) was the first Latina on a court of appeals in Texas. I was a federal judicial law clerk for U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela immediately following law school. Judge Vela showed me that the duties of a judge include being an excellent jurist, but should also extend beyond the courtroom to the community it serves. He often had us law clerks speak at schools and at naturalization ceremonies. In addition, we were instructors in a pre-law academy for undergraduate students. He and my mom instilled in me how one can use a law degree to serve the community, and so as soon as I could be a judge, I became one at 28 years old. As a judge, I treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter who they are or where they come from.

I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm, and I have been promoting diversity on the bench for years. When I saw that Democrats could win seats at the courts of appeals here (which essentially had not happened in about 20 years), I was ecstatic, but when I looked at the composition of the bench, I noticed that the court sorely lacked the diversity that I know this community embodies. Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; however, our courts of appeals have no African American and no Hispanic justices. This is the perfect opportunity for me to utilize my unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge to serve my community in a greater capacity.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In addition to the qualifications listed in response to Question 1, I am eminently qualified to be a justice on the court of appeals because I have a wide breadth of experience as a lawyer handling cases throughout Texasin federal and state, trial and appellate courts, and other states, and I have judicial experience in a criminal court.

My most notable strength is my ability to dive into complex legal issues, and quickly master and apply the law to the facts. I have a varied background representing all types of clients from individuals and families, to business of all sizes, including sole proprietorships and large multi-national corporations. In fact, for the past four years, I have served as lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience as a federal judicial law clerk, and as a trial court judge, having presided over many trials. Therefore, I know firsthand what it means to make decisions from the bench that effect litigant’s lives, and the profound responsibility that entails. I have a deep respect for the rule of law, and I strive to apply the law in the most just way possible.

I handily won the State Bar of Texas Judicial Poll, which shows that more lawyers prefer me and find me more qualified than my opponent in the primary. I am humbled by the outpouring of support I have received during this campaign from elected officials, and highly respected members of the bar, including criminal defense lawyers, civil litigators, personal injury lawyers, legal aid lawyers, appellate practitioners, criminal law and appellate law professors, in-house counsel, and a former Justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in Texas).

5. Why is this race important?

As stated in my response to Question 2, this is a court of general jurisdiction that hears civil and criminal cases from its ten-county district. Unlike the Texas Supreme Court (Texas’ highest court for civil cases), and the Court of Criminal Appeals (Texas’ highest criminal court), which decide which cases to accept on a petition for review, the intermediate courts of appeals must issue opinions regarding each and every case that is appealed to them. Because fewer cases are appealed to our two supreme courts, and those courts do not accept review of every case, the intermediate courts of appeals are often the last word on many important legal issues. Where there is no opinion from the two supreme courts on an issue which an intermediate court of appeals is called to decide, that appellate opinion controls the lower/trial courts within the court of appeals district.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have a wide breadth of experience in my seventeen years of practice, in addition to being a judge. I have worked in legal aid clinics, municipal and federal courts, as well as law firms of all sizes—small, mid-size, and large. I am the only judge, the only woman, and the only person of color in this race. I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm. I have 3 children, 2 jobs, and a husband who is a tremendous partner.

I have an outstanding reputation among my peers for excellent research and writing and oral advocacy skills, as well as a keen ability to dive into complex legal issues, swiftly master and apply the law to the facts, and successfully advocate for my clients. I do all of this in an environment where I am typically the only woman and/or the only person of color among my colleagues and opposing counsel.

I have demonstrated I have judicial temperament on the bench. I am a vetted and trusted public servant. I was repeatedly reappointed to serve as a municipal judge because of my impeccable record of integrity, impartiality, and strong work ethic (I handle a demanding law practice full-time, and I serve on the municipal court part-time).

I have represented all types of clients from individuals and families, to businesses of all sizes, including sole proprietorships, small businesses, and national, as well as multi-national, corporations. In fact, I have been lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world for the past four years, handling cases for it in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience handling very complex (and typically very high-dollar) matters, not just run-of-the-mill cases, in the following areas: business disputes including business torts and breach of contract cases in various industries, such as energy, oil & gas (including Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act matters), medical care, real estate, and insurance; employment and ERISA litigation and advice; consumer litigation; insurance coverage and bad faith; civil rights; receivership; Carmack Amendment; toxic/mass tort; and personal injury, including wrongful death. I also serve as a guardian ad litem in personal injury cases involving minors.

My education has been in highly competitive academic environments. I have always been a studious person ever since I was very young. When I was in seventh grade, I was selected based on my exemplary achievement test scores by the Duke University Talent Identification Program to sit for the SAT with high school students. My scores prompted interest in me by an organization called A Better Chance (ABC), which places academically gifted students in selective college preparatory schools throughout the country. Through ABC, I was accepted to and received a full scholarship to attend St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island as a boarding student. I attended St. George’s for all four years of high school and graduated with distinction. While in high school, I worked during one summer with Mano A Mano, a March of Dimes organization in Brownsville. I worked in medical clinics for indigent people in very impoverished areas on both sides of the border, and did community outreach to educate and disseminate information to women regarding proper prenatal health. This program was, in large part, a response to the prevalence of encephalitic births on both sides of the border. Working in clinics in Mexico and Brownsville without electricity or running water, and witnessing the lives of those much less fortunate than I impacted me greatly and reinforced my interest in public service. That experience showed me two worlds – one of extreme wealth in New England, and another of extreme poverty on the U.S.-Mexico border. That juxtaposition has stayed with me and informs much of what I do and how I think about social justice issues.

I am multi-lingual—an invaluable asset in this most diverse area of the country. I am fluent in Spanish from my family background and formal education. I have a Superior Certification in Legal and Commercial Spanish from the Chamber of Commerce in Madrid, Spain. I also speak Portuguese and Italian.

When I set my mind on a goal, I give it my all. My candidacy is no exception. My hard work is one of the many reasons I have been awarded every organizational endorsement granted to date in this race. My organizational endorsements are in addition to my many individual endorsements from elected officials and well-respected lawyers.

My election will change the face of the court of appeals where we sorely lack diversity. This court of appeals district includes ten counties, including Harris and Fort Bend. It is well-known that Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; yet, our courts of appeals do not reflect our rich diversity. We need diversity, not for diversity’s sake, but to have a mixture of backgrounds and ideas at the table on this multiple judge court. My mother, Retired Justice Linda Yanez, was the first Latina to serve on a court of appeals in Texas. She left a legacy I would be honored to continue here on the Houston court of appeals.

I will apply my strong work ethic, unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge when I am elected to the court of appeals, where I will continue to be a hard-working judge ruling on cases expeditiously with respect for the rule of law.

Judicial Q&A: Cheri Thomas

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Cheri Thomas

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Cheri Thomas. I am running to be the Democratic candidate for Justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, Place 7. I am a 15-year lawyer with significant appellate and litigation experience. My husband, Lewis Thomas, is a criminal defense attorney. Together, we have three amazing daughters and one fuzzy Samoyed.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court composed of nine justices who hear appeals and original proceedings. The Fourteenth Court has jurisdiction over both civil and criminal appeals from lower courts in ten counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

In 2017, I applied for and was selected to be a staff attorney for the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, the same court for which I am now running. In that position, I worked on over 50 civil and criminal appeals, reviewing the record, conducting legal research, and drafting recommendations on various legal matters for the court’s consideration. I know how the court works, and I know what it takes to review appeals accurately and efficiently.

The 2018 election brought new justices to the court, with fresh perspective and a variety of backgrounds. Because the court reviews a wide variety of legal subject matters, justices with different backgrounds act as resources to one another in cases that touch upon their experience. On the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, many of the new justices have experience in criminal law and experience in small firm or solo civil practice. My experience working on complex civil matters in litigation and on appeal will serve as a helpful and necessary resource, balancing the variety of experience on the court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In the last few years, I have worked on more appeals than all my primary opponents combined during the same time period. Not only do I have significant appellate experience, I have significant trial experience. I practiced civil litigation at Baker Botts, LLP, working on a wide variety of civil trial matters, including contract, employment, securities, toxic tort, and personal injury matters in state and federal courts. I then joined Stuart PC, where I represented clients in civil and appellate matters, in state and federal courts all over the country. In 2016, I became a Partner at Stuart PC. I have managed cases at all stages of litigation. My experience as a litigator will give my appellate decision-making depth.

I also clerked for a federal judge. After graduating with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, I secured a federal clerkship working with the Honorable Jorge Solis of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where I had the opportunity to work on numerous civil cases involving various subject matters.

5. Why is this race important?

Except for death-penalty cases, all cases appealed from district and county courts in the ten counties listed above are considered by the First or Fourteenth Courts of Appeals. Intermediate appellate courts like the Fourteenth Court are often the last courts to review these appeals. The Fourteenth Court must review practically every appeal that comes before it whereas Texas’s highest appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, consider a limited number of appeals.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I understand that the court affects real people and real families. I am one of eleven children in a blended family. We have had our own unique set of struggles, and we have experienced struggles that most everyone has experienced: divorce, cancer, death. Voters can count on me to care.

My education and experience have given me the skills I will need to be an excellent Justice: good judgment and the ability to perform rigorous, meticulous legal analysis. I am the only candidate in my race that attended a top-ranked law school or graduated with honors. I am the only candidate that has worked at a leading international law firm or made partner at a law firm. I am the only candidate that has worked in an appellate court (or any court). I was named a “Rising Star” by the Texas Super Lawyers magazine five times, and I was recently elected as a Fellow to the Texas Bar Foundation. Texans are entitled to qualified, fair, and impartial justices. If elected, I will serve honorably. I will work hard, make well-reasoned decisions, and I will treat everyone with fairness and respect.

Judicial Q&A: Natalia Cornelio

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Natalia Cornelio

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Natalia “Nata” Cornelio. I am an experienced, bilingual, Latina attorney. I am running for the Harris County 351st District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This is a Criminal District Court responsible for presiding over felony level cases. This includes presiding over trials and making decisions relating to pretrial release or detention, pretrial motions, sentencing, and certain post-conviction matters.

The Court is also responsible for making decisions and establishing procedures that are distinct from hearing cases, but that have a substantial impact on the community and on individuals appearing before it. For example, the Court has responsibility for case management and courtroom procedures, the appointment of counsel in indigent cases, and for bail-related schedules or policies.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running because I have the ability to apply the law in a manner that will improve the public’s confidence in our courts and their decisions.

I will work tirelessly to improve case management systems, to demonstrate an exceptional understanding of the law, to always respect the Constitution and people’s rights, and to thoughtfully consider people’s experiences when applying the law.

I am also running to bring desperately needed diversity to our criminal bench. I am a qualified Latina attorney who has directly served the communities that are often hit hardest by our justice system. Of the 38 criminal courts in Harris County, there are zero Latina judges serving on these courts. This is in spite of the fact that the population in Harris County is over 43% Latino.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have over 13 years of high-level legal & courtroom experience. I have substantial experience working directly with communities most impacted by the criminal justice system and have a clear, profound understanding of the consequences that judicial decisions have in these communities.

I received my law degree in 2006 from the University of Chicago Law School. I succesfully defended my first murder trial and suppressed evidence in two additional cases while a student at the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid and Juvenile Justice Clinic.

I then served as a staff attorney for the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly four years, where I drafted judicial opinions for federal appellate judges in criminal, immigration, and habeas corpus cases. I disposed of all legal arguments from both sides while applying the law and considering the record in each case.

Between 2011 and 2017, I was a Federal Public Defender here in Houston. During these years, I was in court handling criminal cases almost every day. I represented hundreds of clients charged with serious felony crimes through every phase of their trial proceedings. I litigated hundreds of bail and probable cause hearings. I successfully challenged a case on double jeopardy grounds before federal judge Lee Rosenthal, and successfully challenged a case where speedy trial rights were violated. I developed significant expertise in criminal law and procedure and developed a strong understanding of the immigration consequences that attach to criminal proceedings. While there, I also conducted Continuing Legal Education classes for other practicing attorneys regarding bail proceedings and on defending criminal immigration offenses.

From 2017 until 2019, I was Director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Texas Civil Rights Project. I managed a team of attorneys and litigated prominent, complex civil rights cases relating to our criminal justice system under Section 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. I investigated cases under the Fair Housing Act and Title IX. I successfully represented, on a pro-bono basis, parents forcibly separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border under the federal government’s zero-tolerance policy, the medically vulnerable prisoners held in swelteringly hot and cruel conditions in the Texas prison system, prisoners who have been in continuous solitary confinement for over 20 years, a man who was criminally charged in Greenspoint with “standing on the sidewalk,” and a mother in El Paso who was jailed while pregnant for being unable to pay traffic tickets. I was involved in panel discussions, training sessions, and media presentations regarding this work and our criminal justice system.

In the summer of 2019, I became the Director of Legal Affairs for Harris County Precinct One, where I helped negotiate and draft the final settlement agreement in the misdemeanor bail lawsuit against Harris County. This agreement was critical to ensuring and end to the Harris County practice of detaining thousands of misdemeanor arrestees each year prior to trial simply because of their inability to pay a cash bond. I serve as Co-chair of the Harris County Racial and Ethnic Disparities Committee. This committee is tasked with developing strategies to reduce racial disparities in our justice system. My experience in this rols has made me familiar with the resources available to our leaders to support the development of better policies and practices on critical issues relating to race, bail, and incarceration.

I also teach a course on trial advocacy to law students at The University of Chicago Law School for two weeks each year.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because we must always strive to elect judges who will improve the public’s confidence in our courts based on a demonstrated ability to apply the law.

While this includes any aspect of the court’s work, one critical issue facing our courts today is whether the law and Constitution will be faithfully followed on bail decisions and procedures. Federal Courts across the country have now held that criminal courts must not detain people simply because of their economic circumstances. In Harris County, the Fifth Circuit has found that we have harmed thousands of people, their families and their communities by solely relying on ability to pay in making bail decisions. These policies have perpetuated racial disparities in our justice system and act as a force in too often making innocent people plead guilty.

We need leaders who are committed to making changes in order to always comply with the law and Constitution. These changes will require hard work and a willingness to make difficult decisions. I am committed to ensuring that the law and Constitution are followed in all cases including in bail decisions and policies, and to ensure that all people receive equal justice under the law.

Diversity is also a pressing issue facing our courts. The lack of a Latina judge in our 38 criminal courts serves to undermine the public’s confidence in our courts. We have an opportunity to change that.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I will bring integrity, accountability, diligence, and a respect for the law and legal processes to the bench. I will base my decisions on law and fact. I will respect all members of the community, work hard, and never stop learning. I will always strive to build the public’s confidence in our courts. I ask for your vote.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Amy Clark Meachum

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Judge Amy Clark Meachum, a three-term district court judge from Travis County, and I am running for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Supreme Court of Texas is the court of last resort for civil appeals (including civil cases, family law matters, administrative appeals, probate and estate matters, child protection cases and juvenile justice cases) in Texas.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

It is time for a new generation of judicial thought leaders to bring much needed balance to the all-Republican Supreme Court. Texas has never elected a woman chief justice to its highest court, and I am proud to be the first woman to ever run for this office. We need a system of justice that respects the Constitution, protects the vital role of citizen juries, and addresses the economic barriers that too often prevent women, persons of color, and working families from seeking and obtaining justice. We need to elect judges who put public service and fairness over special interests.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

As presiding judge for the 201st District Court in Travis County, I have general jurisdiction and have presided over cases at the trial level for almost a decade. I am currently the Civil Presiding Judge for all civil and family courts in Travis County, and serve on the Administrative and Public Law Council for the State Bar of Texas. I am a guest lecturer on legal ethics, active on the CLE circuit, and a board member with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas. Before taking the bench, I practiced civil litigation at two of the best firms in Texas. I graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law in 2000, where I was a member of the Texas Law Review, and graduated magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University in 1997.

5. Why is this race important?

The Supreme Court of Texas has been controlled by the Republican Party for over 25 years. SCOTX is considered by legal watchdog groups to be one of the most ideologically conservative in the nation, consistently ruling in favor of large corporations and insurance companies and against individuals and everyday Texans. I am committed to returning the state’s highest civil court to a much more balanced center — and affording all persons equal justice under the law. Even the skeptics agree that 2020 is the best opportunity for Democrats to win statewide in 25 years, and we have the opportunity to possibly win four seats on a nine-member court. This is the most consequential election in our lifetime. Now, more than ever, we need a system of justice that respects the Constitution and values the role of our judiciary and the rule of law.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

When you compare my nearly decade of judicial experience to my primary opponent’s one year, any reasonable person will conclude that I am the more qualified and experienced candidate. When you investigate my judicial record, it will show a decade of standing up for the values of fairness, equality and justice under the law. After winning a contested Democratic primary in Travis County in 2010, I ran for reelection unopposed in 2014 and 2018. Not a single Democrat nor a single Republican ran against me in 2014 or 2018. That speaks to the quality of my work and the fairness of my rulings. In the most consequential election of our lifetime, let’s do something bold and give the voters a clear choice next November. I don’t exactly look like or sound like my primary opponent, my general election opponent, or any of the men who have previously been elected Chief Justice. I am making an important statement for women in the law and women in our party in 2020 and I would appreciate your support!

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.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Julia Maldonado

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Judge Julia Maldonado

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Julia Maldonado, the incumbent in the 507th Family District Court, Harris County Texas. I was elected to this office November 2016. I am running for re-election to the 507th Family District Court. I am Board Certified in Family Law, prior to becoming a judge, I practiced law for eighteen years. During my years as practicing attorney, I tried hundreds of cases and dealt with almost every situation that can come up in a family law setting. As a judge, I have made sure that every litigant is treated with dignity and respect and that each case is decided according to the law without favoritism.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 507th Family District Court hears divorces, suits affecting parent-child relationship (SAPCR), which include but are not limited to, custody, establishment of paternity and child-support. This court also hears enforcement of prior orders issued by this court, which include but is not limited to, child support, possession and access, property. Additionally, this court also hears cases from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (TDFPS), special Immigrant juvenile (SIJS) cases, adoptions and name changes for children as well as adults.

3. What are your main accomplishments in the past four years?

I created a mentorship program for attorneys who are in need of help from more seasoned attorneys; I ensured that the court appointed attorneys list included attorneys from different backgrounds to reflect the diversity of the county; I trained all the new family judges after the November 2018 election. I have implemented procedures in my court which allow the docket to be handled in an efficient manner to ensure that resources are not wasted.

4. What are your goals for the next four years?

To continue to work so that Information Technology is used to make the court more efficient by allowing litigants to set up hearings, check in for cases, and follow up on orders needed to be signed via the internet. Part of the work needs to be synchronized with the office of the Harris County District Clerk so that IT can work in the benefit of every person who comes to court. I will be implementing the electronic voucher system in the next couple of months as part of my ongoing work to ensure that appointed attorneys do not over bill and that there is a better control of the work done by each appointed attorney.

As a senior judge and the administrative judge of the Family Law Division of Harris County, I will continue working to promote that the ten family courts, with the exception of the protective order court, follow policies and procedures that are consistent among the ten courts.

5. Why is this race important?

It is important because family courts make decisions that have long lasting effects on families, both adults and children are impacted by the decisions of the court every day. The judge in charge of making those decisions needs to have vast experience on the matter and needs to have the judicial temperament required when dealing with the type of cases that a family court deals with. I have both, I have ample experience on the subject as an attorney and as a judge and I have the judicial temperament to make correct decisions in every case that comes in front of me.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

People should vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate for this job. I have been practicing family law in Texas since November of 1998. I became Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specializations in 2012. I practiced law for over 18 years prior to becoming a judge. 95% of my law practice was focused in family law. I was elected to the bench as a Family District Court Judge in November 2016. Since then I have gained a wealth of additional experience and have had the opportunity to provide training to all of the new ten family judges that were elected in November 2018. I am currently the Senior Judge and Administrative Judge for the Family Law Division in Harris County. I am now entering my fourth year as a District Court Judge. I have had all the training required by to be a judge and continue furthering my education through Continued Legal Education beyond the required number of hours. I have dealt with almost every scenario that can come up in a family law setting and have tried hundreds of cases related to family law. I have the judicial temperament needed to be a judge and to properly maintain court decorum.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Randy Roll

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Judge Randy Roll

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

I am Randy Roll the incumbent Judge of the 179th District Criminal Court first elected in 2008 and reelected in 2015. I have 32 yrs experience with more than 5000 clients, 8 yrs on the bench (including muni-court). Before practicing law, I was a teacher and housing contractor. I am a linguist and speak Spanish, Russian, German & French. I am the only attorney in the county qualified by the courts to accept appointments in 5 languages before I became judge. As an attorney I accepted appointments (more than 2000), primarily in Spanish as I had been certified in that language, despite never taking formal classes. I wrote the Spanish admonishments (legal warnings for defendants) the courts used for more than 15 years. I have had more than 150 trials as judge and attorney, my opponent has had 4 felony trials as a defense attorney. I have been involved, as a participant & candidate since 2002 in the judicial selection process.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This felony court hears all 4 types of felonies, from theft to murder. This court hears Prostitution cases. Prosecutors like my opponent put prostitutes in prison. I defended them because they were victims. As judge, I have refused to put such victims in prison.

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

Immediately in 2009, (1) I made my grand juries reflect the diversity of this county. The legislature liked what we did and then made it law. (2) I was instrumental in adoption of the Public Defender’s Office. My vote and support was crucial for getting the Public Defender’s Office installed in Harris County. In 2009 we were only 9 Democrats to 13 Republicans. I had to convince Republicans to join us. (3) I spear-headed the use of DNA testing by appointed counsel. I am a progressive judge, (4) handing down more probations since 2009 and more 2nd chances to probationers in non-violent meritorious cases than all the other 21 judges. The DA’s Office has policies of not giving probations in many types of cases, so it falls on the judge. (5) I terminate probations early if they get their education or GED. (6) I also reversed the excessive probation sentences routinely given before 2009. For example, I do not give 10 years probation for possession of a small drug amount. Usually now it is 2 or 3 yrs with treatment where needed. (7) We use Intensive Out-Patient drug treatment and where warranted, in-patient treatment. (8) I have helped young offenders. Several ministers attend the court and we discuss how we can keep them out of harm’s way. My opponent says giving undocumented people probation is a trap for deportation. Tell that to the father of 5 who has lived here since he was a toddler and is now out working to support his family. (9) I began giving Personal Recognizance (PR) bonds (free) in appropriate cases. Since 2009 I have given more PR bonds than any judge. I had a written policy giving PR bonds for non violent meritorious cases. All other cases were on a case by case review. I was not sanctioned as 13 other judges were & that sanction was reversed. (10) I turned around the most bloated and anemic docket of criminal cases of the 22 courts and made it the 5th best and smallest docket, by working hard and taking 8 days vacation in my 1st 4 yrs. This allowed my court to go to trial more often and those waiting in jail had their delay to trial reduced from years to months. (11) Now, I am the senior judge with judicial experience and several new judges have come to me for advice. I still call older retired judges for advice. I am a dedicated to improving the system.

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

I hope to continue the reforms I have made. I want to use my position as the most experienced senior judge to influence Commissioner’s Court to fund mental health services for the justice system. We should not be treating mental health patients by incarceration. I want to continue advising and leading newer judges. I fight everyday to give justice.

5. Why is this race important?

EXPERIENCE MATTERS! I only have 8 yrs as a judge, but that is the most of all 38 criminal judges (including 16 misdemeanor courts). SAFETY MATTERS! My opponent faults me for revoking bonds for people on serious drugs while in court. She implies it is ok for an Aggravated Robbery suspects to continue on bond doing serious drugs like Cocaine and PCP. Often when it is marijuana or some soft drug like this, I keep them for 30-45 days to dry out and then re-instate their bond. My opponent falsely says I do this regardless of the charge (her words). I fear for public safety. PCP is the most violent drug around. My opponent repeats statements she knows to be false. She said, “…he revokes bonds if a defendant tests positive for use of controlled substances – regardless of the charge …”. That is not true. I am providing documents to this blog from the Harris County District Court Administration showing I have revoked only 41 bonds in the last three years out of thousands of defendants. This is fewer than all the other 21 felony courts of Harris County. EXPERIENCE, JUDGMENT & TRUTH MATTER!

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

EXPERIENCE MATTERS. I came in as a reformer. I made reforms – grand jury, public defender’s office, DNA evidence with appointed attorneys, probations, early terminations, reasonable probations, drug treatment, young offender assistance, PR Bonds, and reduced the docket. I am the senior judge in judicial experience. I am in the best position to continue progressive reforms. I am the only true DEMOCRAT in this Democratic Party Primary. My opponent is a republican masquerading as a Democrat. She became a citizen and started voting in 2008. She has only voted 6 times in 12 yrs and half of those were in the republican primaries. In the same 12 yr period I have voted 13 times and only as a Democrat. She wants good voters to vote for her and yet she votes so sparingly. My ex-DA opponent has had very few felony trials, she admits to 4 as a defense attorney. Shouldn’t we want our judges to be qualified, experienced, involved, wise truthful and compassionate. EXPERIENCE MATTERS!

Judicial Q&A: Jane Robinson

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Jane Robinson

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Jane Robinson and I am running for Chief Justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. The Chief Justice serves as a justice on the Court, performs certain administrative duties, and also represents the Court when interacting with the Governor, the state legislature, and other courts across the state and country.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals hears civil and criminal appeals from trial courts in ten counties, including Harris, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Galveston, Chambers, Austin, Colorado, Grimes, Waller, and Washington Counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

After more than two decades in private practice, I am eager for the opportunity to serve the public in a role that I am well qualified for, doing work that I know I will love. Because I am running for Chief Justice, it is particularly important that the winning candidate be well qualified for the role and ready to represent the court when interacting with other courts and branches of government. As a board-certified civil appellate lawyer with decades of experience in a broad range of civil litigation and appellate matters, covering many substantive areas of the law in courts across the country, I think my experience, qualifications, and perspective set me apart.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am an appellate lawyer with extensive experience in both litigation and appeals in state and federal courts. I have been board-certified as a specialist in Civil Appellate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. I am a partner at Houston litigation boutique AZA, where I handle a wide variety of civil appellate matters, mostly involving business litigation and intellectual property disputes. I graduated from Dartmouth College (magna cum laude) in 1995 and from Duke University School of Law (with honors) in 1998, and practiced in California and North Carolina before moving to Texas over a decade ago with my husband, a professor at the University of Houston. I am a contributing author of O’Connor’s Texas Rules * Civil Trials, the most widely used civil litigation guide in Texas. I have also been selected nationally by my peers as one of the Best Lawyers in America for my appellate work. I am a member of the Texas Bar College and the Houston Bar Foundation, as well as many other professional associations.

5. Why is this race important?

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals, like the other intermediate appellate courts in Texas, is the last stop for the vast majority of the appeals before it. The state’s highest courts (the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals) have the discretion to select which appeals they hear, and only a small percentage of appeals are ever heard by either of those courts. The Fourteenth Court shares jurisdiction with the First Court of Appeals over a ten-county area with more than six million residents. Intermediate courts, like the Fourteenth Court, are not only important for the litigants before them, but their opinions set precedent that shape the law in Texas. Most of the laws that affect people’s day-to-day lives are state laws that are interpreted and applied by these very important intermediate courts.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I will bring the highest level of qualifications, as well as local and national recognition as a top appellate lawyer, to a tough general election race. The Republican nominee, who is unopposed in the primary, is a sitting justice on the Court with an unexpired term. This means that if she wins, she will begin a new six-year term on the Court and the governor will appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of her term and run as an incumbent in 2022. I am only the second female partner in my well-regarded Houston litigation boutique firm (the first being Rep. Lizzie Fletcher). I will bring the same drive that I have shown in my career to this critical general election.

Judicial Q&A: Cheryl Elliott Thornton

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Cheryl Elliott Thornton

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am CHERYL ELLIOTT THORNTON, candidate for Judge of the 164th Civil Judicial District Court. I am a native Houstonian who has practiced primarily civil law for about 33 years. I attended Lamar High School in Houston, Texas and received my BA from Trinity University and my MA from St. Mary’s University both in San Antonio, Texas. I received my JD from Thurgood Marshall School of Law. I am married to Peter Thornton, my campaign manager and retired professor from Texas Southern University.

2. What kind of cases does this court heat?

This is a civil court which hears cases with damage claims from $200 to ad infinitum. It is the trial court of general jurisdiction for most civil cases. In Harris County this court hears such cases as personal injury, employment, election, property, contracts and civil cases which are not otherwise assigned to other civil courts.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this particular bench at this time because I was asked by several dignitaries to run since the sitting judge has been indicted and suspended from the bench. They all know me as a person who has chosen to be a public servant in her avocation as well as her occupation and believe that I would be the person who could best bring back character, excellent experience the community can trust.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for over 33 years. Currently, I serve as Senior Assistant County Attorney for Harris County. I have served as an Administrative Law Judge and Hearing Officer for the State of Texas. Further, I have the administrative capabilities necessary to run a court as evidenced by my experience as General Counsel for Texas Southern University and as an Assistant
Attorney General for the State of Texas. I also have State of Texas certification as a Mediator and Ad Litem and have received legal training at Harvard University through the National Association of College and University Attorneys.

Further, in my community I have served as Precinct Chair, Senate District 13 General Counsel, Executive Board of my Homeowner’s association and General Counsel for the World Youth Foundation. I also served as Chair on the Houston Bar Association’s Gender Fairness Committee for which I received the President’s Award and the Houston Bar Association’s Judicial Polls Committee. I additionally serve on the Houston Lawyer Referral Service Board as its Treasurer. And to name just a few more of my community involvement activities which demonstrates my belief in public service, I am a member of the Texas District and County Attorney Association, Houston Lawyer’s Association, Harris County Democratic Lawyers and Women Professionals in Government. I have also successfully fundraised for the United Negro College Fund, The University Museum at Texas Southern University, The Museum of Fine Arts Advisory Association and the Houston Ebony Opera Guild.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is so important because, again, this community, Harris County, has to define who it is. In the past our community has defined itself as accepting of improper, possibly illegal and pronounced unethical behavior. I don’t think this is the route we are choosing again. I believe this time that we will choose a person of CHARACTER, EXCELLENCE, EXPERIENCE you can TRUST. I think we will choose CHERYL ELLIOTT THORNTON.

6. Why should people vote for you in the March primary?

The people should vote for me because I not only have the needed legal skills as shown above, but I also possess the social skills needed to properly service the people that come before this court as evidenced by my involvement in my community. I have one opponent who has proven that she does not possess the ethical qualifications to be in office as evidenced by the board of judicial conduct that suspended her from the very bench we are running for. I have another opponent who retired in 2010 and has now come out of retirement to seek this bench. I think Harris County deserves more. It needs a person involved in her community, a diversified practitioner of the law, and a person experienced with all the types of people that come before her court and can, therefore, serve as more than a jurist. The voters should vote for me, a public servant with over 33 years of legal and community experience, who has the judicial temperament to be Judge of the 164th Judicial District Court. The voters should vote for me CHERYL ELLIOTT THORNTON- a person of CHARACTER, EXCELLENCE, EXPERIENCE you can TRUST.

Judicial Q&A: Lennon Wright

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Lennon Wright

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Lennon C. Wright. I was licensed to practice law on Feb. 3, 1978. I became Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law in 1982. In my forty plus years of practice, I have represented individuals, families and small businesses, usually as a Plaintiff’s lawyer. I am runnning for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil and criminal appeals arising from the county and district courts.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I think the court could use a fresh perspective from someone who has practiced extensively as a plaintiff’s attorney.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have tried over 100 jury trials and handled over 70 appeals. I am the only person in this race who is rated AV Preeminent by Martindale-Hubble.

5. Why is this race important?

For most cases, the court of appeals is the court of last resort. The Supreme Court hears very few cases, so most litigation ends in the court of appeals. As a rule, this court has the final say with regard to what happens in a case.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have the most experience, I am the most qualified, and I am the only one rated AV Preeminent.

Judicial Q&A: Wally Kronzer

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Wally Kronzer

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Wally Kronzer. I am a candidate for Justice, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court of appeals is one of the intermediate courts of appeals in Texas. These courts review appeals in all types of civil and criminal cases, except for capital murder cases (which go directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals).

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I know the law, and I know court of appeals practices. I also know how court systems operate differently in different counties. The way things are done in one county’s legal community are not necessarily the way things are done in other counties. I understand how courts of appeals decisions affect both sides of the civil docket as I handle cases from all sides of the civil docket. I understand how the law effects employers and in employees as I routinely dealt with both. I also understand how criminal decisions affect individuals and families from my pro bono work.

The courts of appeals need diversity of thought and background. For too long too many justices on the Houston area courts of appeals arguably possessed interchangeable legal backgrounds. The courts of appeals must follow the law, but at times following the law has more than one option. I want to be a voice on the court of appeals asking, “Why is it that we keep following only the one option when the law allows another option?”

That leaves one question – why the 14th Court of Appeals as opposed to the other Houston area court of appeals. It is a two-fold answer. The 1967 Texas Legislature created that court of appeals. Numerous former legislatures reminded me over the years that my father was heavily involved in efforts to create that court of appeals as well as refining the other existing courts of appeals. Another reason is that in 2010 I ran for a position on this same court. Frankly, there is a certain logic and symmetry to my serving on the 14th Court of Appeals.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I did some terrific things while in law school. I did it in my early thirties going to school full-time, while working, with a family that included two pre-school children. None of the other candidates for this position are Board Certified in either Civil Appellate Law or Criminal Appellate Law. I achieved Board Certification in Civil Appellate Law within eight years of being licensed.

Many of my court of appeals cases come from outside Harris County. I understand why the non-Harris County judges and lawyers are uncomfortable with the local courts of appeals tendency to focus on Harris County cases. I also understand the relationship between state and federal law as I handle both state and federal appeals. I know what it is like to stand before the Texas Supreme Court, as well as the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

I also have extensive court of appeals writing experience. For years Texas appellate courts have been told to tighten their budgets. Judicial candidates do not talk about this even though they should because the courts of appeals continue to face significant funding issues, including staffing levels, to meet budgetary restrictions. While I look forward to having staff attorneys to assist me in drafting opinions, I am well qualified to handle everything myself if the court of appeals must reduce its current staffing levels.

5. Why is this race important?

The Texas courts of appeals (such as the 14th Court of Appeals) decide significant issues in cases effecting individuals and business entities. The courts of appeals are the final word in almost 90% of cases since the higher courts review a limited number of cases.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

Voting for me adds an experienced court of appeals mind whose case background improved the court of appeals more than any other candidate.

Judicial Q&A: Tim Hootman

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Tim Hootman

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Tim Hootman, running for Justice of the First Court of Appeals, Place 5.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The First Court of Appeals reviews orders and judgments from all trial courts from ten counties (Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington).

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I love appeals and am the most qualified candidate for the job.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Argued in the United States Supreme Court. Handled appeals in every appellate court in Texas. Handled 373 state appeals. Handled 17 federal appeals. Have over 80 published opinions. Handled dozens of state and federal jury trials in 19 Texas counties. Ex staff attorney in the First Court of Appeals. The specific details of my qualifications are on my website: www.HootmanForJudge.com.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because the judges reviewing the orders and judgments from the trial courts of ten counties should be done by the most qualified person possible.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I am the most qualified candidate running for the First Court of Appeals, Place 5.

Texas Lawyer’s judicial race coverage

As you know, I’ve been busy with judicial Q&As as usual, but this year I’m not the only one chasing down judicial candidates to ask them why they’d make good judges. Texas Lawyer, a part of the Law.com publication, is flooding the zone with its own Who’s Running For Judge In Texas Elections? 2020 Voters Guide. Normally you need to give Texas Lawyer your email address and are limited to three articles per month – they’ll send you a daily newsletter and breaking news, both of which have highlighted stories that I’ve blogged about that I hadn’t yet seen elsewhere – but they appear to have made this feature publicly available. They’ve got their own Q&As with the candidates, most of whom responded to them, which has some overlap with my own questions – not a surprise, there’s only so much you can ask them because there’s only so much they can ethically say. Anyway, a big thumbs up from me, so go check it out and annoy the critics of our current system by making informed choices in the upcoming primaries.

Judicial Q&A: Grant Harvey

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Grant Harvey

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Grant Harvey, and I am running for judge of the 164th Civil District Court in Harris County. I have practiced law for nearly 30 years and currently serve as a volunteer Special Prosecutor for the Harris County DA’s office where we’re working to prosecute environmental crimes. I am married to Elizabeth Marroquin Harvey. We have an incredible 13-year-old daughter, and I have a wonderful 31-year-old stepson who teaches music in public school. We also have two other family members—a German Shepherd-mix rescue puppy and a Yorkshire Terrier that thinks he is a German Shepherd.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

As a Texas civil district court, the 164th is the highest-level state trial court. In Harris County, we have a number of specialized district courts including family courts, criminal courts, and probate courts. The 164th is a non-specialized court of general jurisdiction for matters that would not otherwise be filed in the specialized courts. Examples of the types of cases heard in the 164th include medical malpractice, personal injury, contract disputes, disputes with insurers, disputes with homebuilders and many more. In addition, major disputes between or involving local branches of government are filed in courts like the 164th. For instance, when the Fire Fighter’s Union sued the City of Houston in 2017, that case was handled by a civil district court like the 164th. Because of its wide-ranging jurisdiction and potential impact on every Houstonian, this is a very important court, and it is critical that we have the best judge possible on this court.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Having practiced for almost 30 years and appeared in front of 100+ judges, I understand how critical to our judicial system it is that we select only the best of the best to be judges. “Just okay” isn’t good enough. Great judges excel at understanding and applying the law, working hard, being impartial and fair, being respectful, and ensuring that the courthouse doors are open to everyone regardless of their race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or the size of one’s bank account. Great judges understand that being a judge is not a job—it is a commitment of service to one’s community—a community that is entrusting the fair and impartial administration of justice to the judges it elects. That is an awesome responsibility to shoulder. I am qualified for this position, I am committed to public service, and I am running because I want to restore integrity and respect back to this important position.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for almost 30 years. I attended law school at the University of Texas where I graduated in the top 10% of my class. I “graded on” to the Texas Law Review. I clerked for Judge David Ebel who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit immediately upon graduating from law school. Next, I started as an associate with the Gibbs & Bruns, LLP law firm, was promoted to partner in five years, and then worked as a partner and senior partner for nearly twenty. Gibbs & Bruns is recognized throughout the United States as one of the best trial law firms in the country. Throughout my legal career, I have represented hundreds of clients before 100+ judges in courts throughout Texas and in on other states. I have represented plaintiffs and defendants, individuals and corporations on all sorts of cases—medical malpractice, personal injury, complex commercial litigation, partnership disputes, oil and gas disputes, eminent domain, employment litigation etc. My extensive background includes litigation, trial work and appellate work. I’ve been fortunate enough to have received recognitions from various legal ratings groups including Chambers Leadings Lawyers; World’s Leading Litigators; Leading US Trial Lawyers by Legal 500; Expert Guide’s “Best of the Best USA;” Thomson Reuters Texas Super Lawyer’s Top 100 List;” and others.

Today, I hold an of-counsel position with my law firm and spend my time practicing law on a pro bono, volunteer basis. I currently am serving as a Special Counsel for the Harris County DA’s office as we work on behalf of Texans on a criminal case involving a pollution event that took place during Hurricane Harvey. I also serve on the Board of Directors and the executive committee for Today’s Harbor for Children, a home for abused and abandoned children. I have served on the board for nearly twenty years (three of which was spent as Chairman), and I led a volunteer legal team that obtained a $5+ million settlement from a city that was interfering with the charity’s ability to use its land. In sum, I have been preparing for more than thirty years to serve my community at the highest level and am ready to serve my community as judge of the 164th Civil District Court.

5. Why is this race important?

Today, with the concern over how our executive and legislative branches are functioning, it is more important than ever that we have complete confidence in the third branch of government—the judicial branch. This race is critical not only because the 164th District Court is an important court but because the role of a judge is crucial to the administration of justice. The incumbent judge for 164th District Court has been suspended from serving by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. That makes it all the more important that voters do their research and that they make an informed decision before selecting the person they want to entrust with the weighty responsibility of administering fair and impartial justice in the 164th.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

Both because of their impact on Houstonians and their role as pillars of free and fair governance, it is vitally important that we elect only the best of the best to serve as judges. Not only should our judges have an established track record of professional success at the highest level—but they should also demonstrate a commitment to public service. I have an established track record of professional success and public service beginning with law school, continuing through my tenure as an associate and partner at one of the best law firms in the United States, and culminating today in my present position as a volunteer Special Prosecutor for the Harris County DA’s office. I have received endorsements from the AFL CIO, Area 5 Democrats, Bay Area New Democrats, and the Greater Heights Democratic Club. If I am elected judge, the 164th District Court will once again be a court of which the citizens of Harris County be proud.

Judicial Q&A: Bryan Acklin

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Bryan Acklin

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Bryan Acklin, and I am running to become the Democratic candidate for Judge of the 176th District Court in Harris County, a felony district court. I am a Houston native, and returned here to teach bilingual education at Gallegos Elementary School in HISD following my graduation from Vanderbilt University. I attended law school at the University of Texas School of law and spent the first part of my career at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. While there, I gained invaluable experience trying both felony and misdemeanor cases. I am currently in private practice where I have continued handling felony and misdemeanor cases.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 176th District Court hears felony offenses ranging from state jail felonies to Capital Murder. The Court also hears motions involving the revocation of probation and other forms of community supervision, as well as matters dealing with bonds.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this bench in particular because many of my colleagues and I have become disturbed and saddened by 176th’s current practices. These practices include denying attorneys the right to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients on the record and bond practices which are neither fair nor aligned with relevant case law and statutes. I strongly believe that the people are entitled to have qualified, competent, and fair judges serve on the bench. I am running for this particular bench to make that a reality for the 176th District Court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have prosecuted and defended thousands of felony cases. I even had the solemn honor of trying a Capital Murder case as a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, I worked in the Trial Bureau, the Family Criminal Law Division, the Intake Division, and the Grand Jury Division. I want to put the experience that comes with personally trying felony cases to good use by serving my community and state as a judge.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because every single person, whether the accused or the victim, a defense attorney or a prosecutor, deserves a courtroom in which the presiding judge is qualified, competent, and fair. Unless and until the current judge is replaced, that simply will fail to be the case in the 176th District Court. The outcome of this race is important to show that people care about justice in our criminal courts and to show that the people will not stand for malfeasance and incompetence.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

People should vote for me because I am the more qualified candidate and the only candidate who is capable and willing to accurately and consistently apply the law in a manner that is fair and coherent. The liberty of the accused and the rights of victims are too precious to allow the 176th to continue as is. People should vote for me to protect their fellow citizens by ensuring that the 176th District Court is placed in the hands of a judge who is qualified, compassionate, fair, and competent.