Endorsement watch: Finally, some judicial races

There are so many contested judicial races on the primary ballot, but we’re just now starting to get some judicial race endorsements from the Chronicle. Let’s being this roundup with three criminal district court races, in which the Chron went with the incumbents. First up, Judge Chuck Silverman in the 183rd.

Judge Chuck Silverman

When Chuck Silverman ran for the 183rd Criminal District Court in 2018, his main flaw as a candidate was his lack of criminal law experience. Now, Silverman has three years on the criminal bench under his belt, and while there are still areas where Silverman can improve, we recommend Democratic primary voters give him a chance to defend his seat this fall.

One of the chief criticisms leveled at Silverman, 61, is his relatively high pre-trial detention rate among district court judges. With the Harris County Jail already overcrowded, it’s critical that judges aren’t just locking up indigent defendants without cause. But in Silverman’s case, we believe the numbers don’t tell the whole story. He has built a reputation as a reformer and in 2020, filed a motion to join the historic lawsuit challenging cash bail in the felony court system, saying he wanted “to make the cash bail system obsolete or to make it work better.” We believe he is sincere in his desire for a fairer bond system and that his pre-trial detention figures require greater context.

“Individuals are entitled constitutionally to bail, and they’re given bail, but then the question becomes, what happens when those individuals violate the bond conditions? People are taken back into custody, and then my numbers may go up,” Silverman told the editorial board.

My Q&A with Judge Silverman is here. I did not receive responses from his opponent, Gemayel Haynes.

Next, Judge Abigail Anastasio in the 184th.

Judge Abigail Anastasio

Four years ago, we thought Abigail Anastasio was a qualified, enthusiastic, yet inexperienced candidate for the bench. Now, with three years as a district judge under her belt and a reputation for running an efficient, balanced courtroom, Anastasio has more than earned the chance to defend her seat in the general election.

A former high school teacher, defense attorney and prosecutor, Anastasio, 41, has proved to be a quick study as a judge.

At a time when the case backlog in Harris County remains stubbornly high, Anastasio consistently maintains one of the county’s lowest dockets. Her 101 percent clearance rate for the past year is third-highest of any district court judge and she also has a remarkably high trial rate, even with the COVID-19 pandemic grinding many court proceedings to a halt. She’s accomplished this in part by implementing a scheduling order issuing deadlines for attorneys to meet over the life of a case. Perhaps most impressively, Anastasio has managed to both maintain a low pretrial detention rate and the third-lowest bond population of any district court, proving that efficiency and public safety aren’t mutually exclusive.

Anastasio sets high expectations for how her courtroom should operate, which has won her the respect of both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

My Q&A with Judge Anastasio is here. I will have a Q&A with her opponent, Katherine Thomas, on Monday.

And then there’s Judge Jason Luong in the 185th.

Judge Jason Luong

Jason Luong has faced unprecedented challenges in his first term as judge, juggling myriad duties amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, while maintaining a reputation as a fair jurist. Voters should give him an opportunity to return to the bench.

Luong, 47, a former prosecutor and civil lawyer, didn’t even have a courtroom when he first began presiding over the 185th District Court due to the extensive damage at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center from Hurricane Harvey. Months after the building finally opened back up in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the court system. Luong was part of the group that established the jury selection system at NRG Stadium, allowing courts to resume operating.

Even with those obstacles, Luong still managed to preside over the county’s Felony Veterans Treatment Court, chair the felony district courts’ Bail Bond Committee, and keep his docket relatively efficient, with a stellar 101 percent clearance rate over the past three months. However, we’d like to see Luong preside over more trials, as he’s only held 10 in three years.

I did not receive Q&A responses from Judge Luong for this election. I did get responses from him in 2018, which you can see here. He has two opponents, Andrea Beall and Kate Ferrell, and I received responses from Beall that you can see here.

There are two races among the five they focused on that only feature Democratic challengers. First we have William Demond for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 9.

William Demond

We recommend William Demond, a Houston constitutional rights attorney, as the best choice for the March 1 Democratic primary for Place 9 on the 14th Court of Appeals. The winner will face Justice Randy Wilson in the fall.

The Texas Courts of Appeals serve as the kitchen sink of the judiciary. When lawyers think something went wrong at the trial level, it falls on the appellate justices to set the legal record straight and ensure that the law is applied properly.

Demond, 44, has the breadth of experience that would fit this court perfectly. He has a background in civil litigation, covering everything from breach of contract cases to administrative law. Not many attorneys can say their case work has helped establish constitutional rights. Demond has done it twice in cases before the Fifth Circuit Court, including the right to film police officers. Recently, he was appointed to represent Harris County inmates in a case concerning their constitutional rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He’s already established relationships with some of the sitting justices on the court of appeals and believes he’d be able to fit in seamlessly with an ideologically diverse panel. Demond also assured us he wouldn’t take an activist approach as a judge.

Demond was a candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2020. I don’t have Q&A responses from him or his opponent Chris Conrad.

Finally, there’s Kyle Carter for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2.

Kyle Carter

After 13 years as a civil district court judge in Harris County, Judge Kyle Carter, 45, tells us he’s ready for a new job. “I am asking voters for a promotion,” he said.

We think he’s earned Democrats’ vote in the March 1 primary for Place 2 on the 14th District Court of Appeals in Harris County. The winner will face Justice Kevin Jewell in the fall.

Carter’s Democratic opponent, Cheri Thomas, 43, is a lawyer with an impressive background. She’s worked as a defense attorney focusing on criminal appeals, and for two years was a staff attorney at the 14th District Court of Appeals. She says she made presentations to the justices there in nine cases, and has more recently argued before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a still-pending case. On Thursday, she was endorsed by the Houston Association of Women Attorneys.

That laudable background doesn’t match the experience Carter has gained on the bench. Thomas told us that Carter’s experience as a trial judge doesn’t necessarily prepare him for the more cerebral role appellate justices must play. While it’s true that a justice’s effectiveness greatly depends on legal knowledge, reasoning and writing skills, there are few better ways to prepare for a role in shaping and interpreting the law than 13 years of having to implement them daily.

Carter as noted has been the judge of the 125th Civil District Court since 2009; we was elected in the first Democratic wave of 2008, and has won re-election three times since then. I received Q&A responses from him for this race, and they are here. Cheri Thomas was a candidate for this court in 2020, and I will have Q&A responses from her on Wednesday.

Those of you who have more direct experience with these judges and attorneys, please feel free to leave a comment.

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