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Endorsement watch: Jaworski and more

The Chron finishes off the statewide races by endorsing Joe Jaworski in the primary for Attorney General.

Joe Jaworski

No question, Joe Jaworski would be a compelling candidate for Texas attorney general even if he weren’t the grandson of Texas legendary lawyer Leon Jaworski, best known for being Richard Nixon’s handpicked Watergate prosecutor who ended up arguing successfully for the release of damning tapes that outed Nixon’s involvement in the scandal and led to his resignation as president.

But it sure is poetic to have the grandson of a man famed for his conscience, for being the “chief defender of the nation’s scruples,” as Texas Monthly put it in 1977, running against Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican infamous for his lack of scruples, perpetual scandals and never-ending indictments.

“That’s not enough to vote for me,” Jaworski, 59, a mediator, former Galveston mayor and three-term city councilman, said about his grandfather’s legacy. “But it’s a damn good reason to consider me, because his integrity is in my DNA.”

And consider him we did, along with the rest of the impressive candidates on the Democratic slate, which includes Harris County criminal court-at-law judge Mike Fields, Brownsville attorney Rochelle Garza and Lee Merritt, a nationally known civil rights lawyer.

All of them say they can beat Attorney General Ken Paxton and restore integrity to an office that hasn’t seen it in seven years. They share many priorities, including protecting voting rights and women’s right to choose. Several vowed to use the office both legally and as a bully pulpit to advocate for legislative reforms including expansion of Medicaid.

[…]

Jaworski says he’d waste no time turning “Paxton’s voter fraud” division into “Jaworski’s voter access division,” because, as he told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, “you ought to be able to call the government when your voting rights are being impeded or damaged.” He’d also take small but important steps to champion the voting franchise, including sending letters to all Texas high schools reminding them of the Texas law that requires access for eligible seniors to register to vote.

He’d create a civil rights division at an agency that shamefully lacks one. On border security, rather than targeting individual immigrants and families, he’d go after the cartels that operate exploitative human smuggling operations, in part by funding special assistant U.S. attorneys across the border — a tactic he says was last used by then-AG John Cornyn.

Jaworski also plans to advocate for legalization of cannabis for recreational use in Texas, a priority that might seem minor, all things considered, but that carries weightier significance: Removing “wasteful, petty prosecution from the books,” he says, would “usher in long-overdue social and criminal justice reform.” We agree.

I’ve known Jaworski for a few years, going back to his time as Galveston Mayor and his 2008 run for State Senate. He’s terrific, and it’s not possible to overstate how much better he’d be in the job than the piece of crap felon who’s there now. The other candidates merit consideration as well, with Rochelle Garza being the standout among them. It’s a legitimately tough choice.

They go on to endorse in four more judicial races, and if their intent was only to do the criminal courts, then I believe they’re done. We’ll see about tomorrow. Three of these races were challenges to incumbents, the other is for the new 482nd bench. In order:

Judge Chris Morton in the 230th.

Morton, 49, was elected in 2018 and has presided over high-profile cases in his first term. When the man accused of murdering Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal appeared before him in October 2019, he ordered him held without bond. Last August, he issued an order shielding Texas House Democrats — very briefly, it turned out — from civil arrest by the House sergeant at arms, following the lawmakers’ quorum-busing walkout. And when prosecutors charged a Cy-Fair ISD mother for child endangerment, after she was seen letting her 13-year-old out of her locked trunk at school, he resisted the easy call and told prosecutors they hadn’t made their case.

Agree with them or not, those rulings suggest to us an independence that suits a judge well. And while [challenger Joseph] Sanchez is right to urge more focus on reducing the backlog in Morton’s court, the count there is below the average number in Harris County courts. We recommend Morton in the primary.

My Q&A with Judge Morton is here. I did not get responses from challenger Sanchez.

Judge Hilary Unger in the 248th.

Harris County criminal district court judges are increasingly under scrutiny for bond decisions in cases where the defendant, once out of custody, commits a new crime, including murder. Judge Hilary Unger of the 248th District Court is one of them, given a string of incidents where defendants in her court bonded out and went on to commit serious crimes.

Some would argue that such cases make Unger, 59, unworthy of re-election. We disagree. She is the best choice for Democrats in the March 1 primary for two reasons: Her overall record on the bench is a strong one, and because we do not believe her challenger would do better.

Unger supports the bail reform movement, and insists that nearly every defendant deserves a hearing to consider his or her terms for pre-trial release. But her court has the 10th-highest (out of 23 courts) pre-trial detention number, which suggests she weighs those decisions carefully. She would have fewer defendants in detention if she indiscriminately gave personal recognizance or low bonds. She’s also improving her clearance rate, which in the past three months has been 101 percent.

My Q&A with Judge Unger is here. Her opponent is Linda Mazzagatti, who works in the district attorney’s general litigation office, and has not sent me Q&A responses.

Judge Amy Martin in the 263rd.

Judge Amy Martin has earned Democrats’ support in the March 1 primary after one term on the bench in this criminal district court. Martin, 45, was a defense attorney representing mostly impoverished clients, and with experience in death penalty cases, before she was elected in 2018. We endorsed her then, believing that background would serve her well on the bench.

It turned out to be a solid bet. She’s accessible, big on pre-trial diversion programs for people with mental health or substance abuse cases and has ideas for how to expand those efforts to include people on bond.

Despite those progressive ideas, Martin also has sounded warnings that the “spirit of bail reform” that was behind mostly ending cash bail for misdemeanors has bled over into the way felony judges approach bail. In our conversation with her about her approach to setting bonds, we found her thoughtful, balanced and, well, judicious.

I did not get Q&A responses from either Judge Martin or her opponent Melissa Morris, about whom the Chron also said nice things.

Veronica Nelson in the 482nd.

Democrats are choosing among three candidates with the winner set to face Republican Maritza Antu, the current judge in the 482nd who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to preside over the new court and is unopposed in her party’s primary.

Of the three Democrats seeking the seat, we were impressed with two, Veronica Nelson and Alycia Harvey. We urge voters to choose Nelson, 40, a staff attorney for the county criminal and civil court judges.

She is a former Harris County prosecutor who, over 10 years, gained valuable trial experience as chief prosecutor in the misdemeanor and felony divisions.

As a staff attorney for the judges, she said she spends a lot of time “teaching judges how to be judges.”

She said prosecutors should more often ask for bond hearings, and that judges can be blamed unfairly. Bond is far higher for murder charges than it used to be, she says, and no matter how high judges set it in some cases, defendants are making bail.

My Q&A with Nelson is here and with Harvey is here. I did not get responses from the third candidate, Sherlene Cruz.

The full list of Chron endorsements is here. I’m hoping they will still do the Family court races, but I’m not expecting it. The Erik Manning spreadsheet tracks a gazillion endorsements, so maybe that will help some. Good luck sorting it all out.

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2 Comments

  1. N.M. Horwitz says:

    The Chronicle had an entire thing saying they would only endorse in criminal district courts for the countywides.

  2. Frederick says:

    Yeah, what he said …”thingy”