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Michael Gomez

Coronavirus and the courts

More things that will be shut down for the time being.

Courts in the Houston region are announcing measures to reduce or suspend some operations in response to the new coronavirus outbreak and local declarations of emergency.

Harris County’s court system announced Thursday that jury service will be suspended from Friday through March 20, another move by local authorities as they grapple with the spread of the new coronavirus.

Local Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said that the Board of District Court Judges met and decided to suspend service. “Jurors who have received a summons for these dates do not need to appear and do not need to schedule,” he said in the order released Thursday.

In addition Harris County Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez said earlier that civil trials will be canceled through the end of the month, and individual judges would determine how to handle bench warrants.

Brazoria County also announced suspension of jury duty because of the coronavirus outbreak for the week of March 16 and the week of March 23. “Residents that have received a jury summons for the week of March 16th or the week of March 23rd will not need to report for jury duty,” the county said in a release.

The federal courts have also announced some adjustments to civil matters in the wake of the public health pandemic, although federal courthouses across in the massive Southern District of Texas – which stretches from near the Louisiana border to the Mexico border — will remain open. Civil jury trials in Houston and Galveston have been postponed until April 1 or thereafter. Judges have the discretion to postpone bench trials.

The federal clerk’s offices will become a virtual operation, with aides available to the public by phone and responding to snail mail. The intake desks will process electronic court filings.

On the criminal side, juries are still being called. In addition, all hearings before a district, bankruptcy or magistrate judge will remain as scheduled unless the presiding judge in the case makes a change.

There’s more, involving civil, criminal, and family court, so read the rest, and check in with your court or your attorney if you have any legal proceedings in the near future. Texas Lawyer has a more comprehensive roundup of court actions around the state. As Alex Bunin, the head of the Public Defender’s office says in the piece, once there’s a confirmed case involving someone in a courtroom, whatever their role may be, it’s going to snowball from there.

Let’s also not forget the prisons and jails, which could be a major vector for the spread of the disease. The Harris County jail is doing screenings and can do quarantines, but maybe the short term answer is to arrest fewer people and let asylum-seekers and others out of detention. There’s lots of ways to do social distancing.

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.)

Endorsement watch: Civil court incumbents

Keeping up with the weekly endorsement schedule, we have round one of Civil Court endorsements, as there are many Civil Court races this year.

HarrisCounty

11th Civil District Court: Kevin Fulton

The candidates in this race to replace outgoing Judge Mike Miller are both living proof of the American Dream. Republican Kevin Fulton, our choice for the bench, grew up in gritty South Central Los Angeles. The family of his Democratic opponent Kristen Hawkins fled Communist Hungary. Both candidates went on to graduate from law school and start their own firms. Both have the right temperament and work ethic to succeed on the bench.

61st Civil District Court: Erin Elizabeth Lunceford

Gov. Greg Abbott chose well when he appointed Erin Elizabeth Lunceford, 55, to this court in July 2015, and voters should give her a full term. A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Lunceford, a Republican, has 27 years of practice, is board certified in Personal Injury Trial Law and is also an associate member of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

80th Civil District Court: Larry Weiman

When civil judges want to brag about their number of jury trials, the size of their dockets and their overall productivity, they compare themselves to Judge Larry Weiman.

125th Civil District Court: Kyle Carter

Democrat Kyle Carter – first elected to the bench in 2008 – gets our nod for another term. This graduate of the South Texas College of Law genuinely seems to love his job and to view it as an opportunity not only to administer justice but to help people. Carter, 40, said that he’s started an organization, Judges At Work in Schools, and visits local schools to educate students about the judicial system, career opportunities and the importance of education.

127th Civil District Court: R.K. Sandill

Judge R.K. Sandill, 40, admits that he’s developed a reputation for being curt. He expects lawyers to come prepared and has no patience for counsel who waste his and their client’s time. But over his two terms, this hard-working, qualified judge has learned how to keep the docket moving without being too harsh on the attorneys.

129th Civil District Court: Michael Gomez

Voters should return Democrat Michael Gomez to the bench for four more years. Although his numbers in the Houston Bar Association judicial qualification poll weren’t stellar when he was first elected in 2008, Gomez has grown into the role and last year he was awarded Judge of the Year by the Hispanic Bar Association of Houston. According to Gomez, 42, anyone who “loves his job the way I do is always looking for a way to do things better.”

133rd Civil District Court: Jaclanel McFarland

Judge Jaclanel McFarland brings a lot of personality and small-town common sense to her court. In meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, the two-term Democratic judge explained how she hates it when opposing counsel just rely on email instead of actually talking to each other.

The 11th is an open bench, while the 61st was filled by appointment after Judge Al Bennett was elevated to federal court. The rest are all Democratic incumbents. The next batch contains four Democratic incumbents (Englehart, Schaffer, Smoots-Hogan, Palmer), one Republican incumbent (Halbach), and two Republican appointees (Mayfield Ibarra and Dorfman). There’s one incumbent I don’t expect the Chron to endorse (Palmer); beyond that, we’ll see.

Judicial Q&A: Michael Gomez

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

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

My name is Michael Gomez and I am running for the 183rd Criminal District Court.

2 . What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 183rd District Court handles felony cases. This court hears capital murder cases, robberies, assaults, burglaries, sexual assaults, drug possession cases, and etc.

3 . Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running to make sure that justice is carried out: every time, every case. Those who break our laws belong before our judges. If defendants are found guilty, they must be sentenced accordingly. Judges sitting in criminal district courts must have both the resolve and the will to apply precedents and even persuasive dicta from the appellate courts to the facts of each case before them. I will do so with no demonstration of bias.

4 . What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been a trial lawyer for 9 and ½ years. I handle cases from the development stage through jury verdict and have extensive experience in motion practice, not only before district courts in Harris County but throughout Texas. My current practice consists of managing a law office of 20 individuals where I handle a high volume case load. I believe that these skills will allow me to move cases swiftly through my courtroom, while also making sure that each defendant is given a fair trial. I believe my ability to balance fairness under the law and swift decision making will provide defendants with ample time and opportunity to mount a reasonable defense while giving the prosecution the same opportunity. Finally, I have been an adjunct professor at the University of Houston – Downtown for the past 9 years teaching Criminal Law, Legal Rights of the Convicted Criminal, Criminal Procedure, and The American Civil and Criminal Court System.

5 . Why is this race important?

This race is important because I am an unbiased candidate. Due to my lack of bias, everyone who appears before me will be judged on the merits of the case, not the attorney who represents them.

6 . Why should people vote for you in November?

All of the above answers give evidence as to why I believe I will earn the voters in Harris County’s confidence and their votes in November. The bottom line is that I have the experience, dedication, work ethic, integrity, honesty and desire to be the judge that Harris County deserves.