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Harris County

Too many bicyclists die on the roads around here

We should be more upset about this.

More than 100 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads over the past five years, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation.

A Chronicle analysis of TxDOT roadway crash data found that 103 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads since 2017. Aside from a slight dip in 2018, the annual total has risen each year.

The data reviewed by the Chronicle comes from vehicle-related crash reports involving a bicyclist. It includes fatalities that occurred within 30 days due to injuries sustained from a crash.

[…]

Only crashes with running motor vehicles that result in injuries, deaths or personal property damage over $1000 are required to be reported, according to TxDOT guidelines. If none of those things occurred, it’s usually up to the discretion of the responding agency.

According to a Sept. 1 news release from TxDOT, Texas crashes involving bicyclists claimed the lives of 92 people total in 2021. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths accounted for 20 percent of the 4,490 fatalities on Texas roadways last year, according to TxDOT.

[…]

According to the data, some of the contributing factors to Harris County’s fatal crashes include:

  • Drivers failing to control their speed
  • Drivers disregarding stop signs or lights
  • Drivers failing to drive in a single lane or changing lanes when it’s unsafe
  • Drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Pedestrians failing to yield the right of way to vehicles

TxDOT is currently undergoing it’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign aimed at reminding Texans to know and follow laws for safe driving, walking and biking. The laws include the Lisa Torry Smith Act, which went into effect in 2021 and requires drivers to stop and yield the right of way to people in crosswalks. Drivers must also required to yield the right of way to pedestrians and bicyclists when turning.

Did you know that we had such a law in Texas now? I admit that I did not. That was SB1055, and here’s some background on it, the short version of which is that it was named for a Fort Bend woman who was killed while in a crosswalk by an apparently inattentive driver. She was walking her 6-year-old son (who was badly injured as well) to school at the time. There are now criminal penalties for this, including felony charges if the driver injures or kills the person in the crosswalk. Good to know, and I’m glad it passed. Now if we could make sure everyone else knows about it.

Anyway. There were 24 bicyclists killed on Harris County roads last year, up from 14 in 2017 and 13 in 2018. There’s a chart with the totals in the story, along with maps showing all crash locations and all fatal crash locations in that time. The number so far for 2022 is 11, which would reverse the trend of increases but would likely still end up higher than 2018 and is still too many. Between initiatives like Vision Zero and the general investment in non-automotive transportation, things are going in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. And maybe we should prioritize reducing the number of people who die this way a bit more.

Interview with Amy Hinojosa

Amy Hinojosa

We wrap up with my second Harris County Department of Education trustee interview. HCDE races are at the bottom of the ballot, the office and its trustees are usually not in the public limelight, and many people don’t know much about what the HCDE does. But it’s races like these that I consider part of my core mission with this blog, and I’m always happy to do interviews with HCDE candidates. Today we talk to Amy Hinojosa, who is serving as the trustee in Precinct 2. Hinojosa was appointed as the Precinct 2 trustee in December 2019, at the same time as Andrea Duhon, following the resignation of trustee George Moore. She is a project manager in technology development at Chevron and the founder of a community youth athletic program which allows students to explore their college futures by visiting local universities called Community Leaders Encouraging Academia Through Sports, Inc. or CLEATS. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

All interviews and Q&As through the primary runoffs
Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Chuck Crews – HD128
Cam Campbell – HD132
Stephanie Morales – HD138
Robin Fulford – CD02
Laura Jones – CD08
Teneshia Hudspeth – Harris County Clerk
Andrea Duhon – HCDE Trustee, Precinct 4

As always, everything you could want to know about the Democratic candidates can be found at the Erik Manning spreadsheet.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Gloria Lopez

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Gloria Lopez

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

My name is Gloria López and I am the 308th Family District Court Judge in Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 308th Family District Court is one or ten Family District Courts in Harris County, Texas. It hears family law matters — divorces, child custody disputes, child support cases, child visitation determination, marital property divisions, parental terminations and adoption cases. This Court also handles issues involving Children’s Protective Services (CPS) cases, enforcements, modifications, and paternity cases.

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

When I was elected, I restored integrity to the 308th Family District Court. Bias and impropriety were eliminated. Parties finally have an opportunity to have their case heard in a fair and just manner. Additionally, during this time, cases run smoother, the docket was streamlined and people get their day in court in a dependable and fair fashion. This was not the case prior to me taking this bench. I have restored efficiency, fairness, kindness, and energy to this court. I am running for re-election because public service is my passion and the issues handled in our overcrowded family courts are of prime importance to our community and our families.

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

I hope to maintain the level of transparency that I have brought to the 308th Family District Court and continue to improve participation rates from families is CPS cases. During Covid, the 308th Family District Court used technology to improve the experience of litigants, especially people who do not have attorneys. We leveraged technology not only to stay open, but also to improve participation rates and help users resolve disputes more efficiently. The boost in court appearances that followed the shift to virtual hearings is consistent with pre-pandemic assertions that reducing the day-to-day costs of coming to court—such as transportation, childcare, lost wages, and travel time—would increase people’s ability to meaningfully engage in court cases. Currently, the 308th Family District Court lives streams all hearings and trials. The increased transparency has restored trust in the judicial system and helped students, lawyers, and families learn about family law.

5. Why is this race important?

It is important to note that the family courts in Harris County are extremely busy. The cases must be presided over by a judge who understands the law and the complexities of the family issues faced in these courts each day. A family law judge must conduct herself honorably and be efficient. Justice is best served when it is handled efficiently and by a family law judge who is compassionate within the bounds of the law. These cases must be handled by someone who is going to work hard each and every day. These cases must be handled by someone dedicated to being a public servant to the constituents of Harris County and not a politician.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Representation matters. It is important for Harris County constituents to see people like themselves on the bench. People from marginalized communities tend to be discouraged by the judicial process. Seeing a person with experience and a similar background (as their own) helps restore faith and trust in the judicial system. Additionally, I am Board Certified in Family Law. I exclusively practiced family law prior to being elected in 2018. I have presented and published articles on family law issues/topics for the Texas Center for the Judiciary, the State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association, the State Bar Office of Minority Affairs, the Houston Bar Association, the Mexican American Bar Association, the Muslim Bar Association, the South Asian Bar Association, and local organizations. I am experienced and dedicated to the practice of family law. I am also compassionate, measured, consistent, and fair. I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United State of America and Texas. I do not take this oath lightly and will continue to execute my oath faithfully. I am seeking re-election to ensure that the constituents of Harris County have a Family Law Judge that executes the duties of this position with integrity and compassion. It is important to keep a Judge in the 308th that understands the law and uses her discretion in a way that helps all people feel safe and heard.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Interview with Andrea Duhon

Andrea Duhon

There are two incumbent trustees on the Harris County Board of Education on the ballot this November. Both were appointed to their current positions, and one is running for a different position than the one she currently holds. Andrea Duhon is the latter, having been appointed in 2019 to fill the Precinct 3 position that she very narrowly lost in 2018 after the incumbent stepped down to run for the Legislature in 2020. That occurred after she had filed to run for an At Large position in that same election, which had me tied up in knots for a little while, though in the end all was fine. Putting all of that aside, Duhon is currently serving as the First Vice President of the Board. She is a small business owner and has been an education advocate and active force with the HCDE even before her first campaign. While she serves as the representative for Precinct 3 now, she is running for the same position in Precinct 4, as HCDE precincts are defined by Commissioners Court precincts and thus affected by last year’s redistricting. You can listen to the interview I did with her for her 2018 campaign here, and you can listen to my interview with her for this campaign, which attempts to recap all of that history, here:

PREVIOUSLY:

All interviews and Q&As through the primary runoffs
Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Chuck Crews – HD128
Cam Campbell – HD132
Stephanie Morales – HD138
Robin Fulford – CD02
Laura Jones – CD08
Teneshia Hudspeth – Harris County Clerk

As always, everything you could want to know about the Democratic candidates can be found at the Erik Manning spreadsheet.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Genesis Draper

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Genesis Draper

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

My name is Genesis Draper, and I am the judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12. Additionally, as of July 1, 2022, I also serve as the presiding judge for all 16 County Criminal Courts at Law, a role that provides administrative support to all of the county criminal courts.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

I preside over misdemeanor cases, which are cases that are punishable by up to one year in the Harris County Jail, and/or up to a $4000 fine.

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

One of the major accomplishments from my term as judge of County Court 12, includes settling a landmark bail reform lawsuit that ended the practice of jailing people in Harris County for misdemeanors solely because they couldn’t afford to buy their freedom through the process of paying a bail bond company. By settling the lawsuit, my colleagues and I ended the practice of wealth-based detention in misdemeanor cases, and created a model for other jurisdictions to follow. Another major accomplishment of my tenure as judge, is the creation of the Harris County Office of Managed Assigned Counsel, which is an independent county agency tasked with supporting the indigent defense bar practicing in Harris County misdemeanor courts. The office now appoints the attorney, provides support to the attorney, and manages the payment of vouchers to the attorney. With the creation of this office, attorneys appointed to represent indigent individuals accused of misdemeanors, can have the independence from the judiciary and the support necessary to provide zealous representation for their clients.

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

I hope to establish a scheduling order in County Criminal Court 12 that will put all parties on notice regarding the deadlines in cases. Currently, there are no uniform expectations for when evidence is due, when motions should be filed, or when cases should be ready for dispositions. Clearer expectations from the court should put the parties on proper notice for when things are due in a case, and assist in shortening the length of time it takes to reach a conclusion in a case.

5. Why is this race important?

County Criminal Courts at Law are important races, because whether you are accused of a crime or the victim of a crime, it will be important to you that the case is handled competently and efficiently.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am asking for people’s vote in November because I have worked hard as the judge of this court for over three years to ensure that every person who encounters the court has access to justice, even in the midst of post-hurricane space limitations and a global pandemic that brought most systems to a grinding hault. My 13+ years of criminal litigation experience at the state and federal level has uniquely prepared me to continue providing a high level of service to the people of Harris County as the judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12

Judicial Q&A: Je’Rell Rogers

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Je’Rell Rogers

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

My name is Je’Rell Rogers and I am running for judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law #14. I have been practicing law since 2013. For the last 3+ years, I have served as chief prosecutor of the 180 th District Court where I am responsible for the murders and capital murders pending in that court. I am a 2008 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, a Teach for America alumni corps member (Sharpstown Middle School), and an LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center 2013 graduate.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears Class B and Class A misdemeanors. Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 180 days Harris County Jail and a fine not to exceed $2,000.00. A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in the Harris County Jail and a fine not to exceed $4,000.00. Common class B misdemeanors may include DWI (first offender), criminal trespass, and some thefts—just to name a few. Class A misdemeanors include DWI (second offender), Assault, and Burglary of a Motor Vehicle—just to name a few.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this particular bench because there was a lack of community involvement and focus from this particular seat. Many of the other county criminal court judges have been involved with specialized courts/programs that are focused at bettering the members of our community through services targeting specific needs. SOBER Court and Veterans’ court are examples of such specialized courts and my predecessor had next to no involvement. Everyday, judges make decisions that impact our community and so programs like these and the Fresh Start program introduced by the county criminal courts are essential for the bettering of and safety of our community. Thus, judges need to have not just the legal experience but the actual community involvement in order to have proper perspective when making these decisions. I’m running for this bench because I am the candidate that can best bring these qualifications to the position.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

My qualifications for this job include courtroom experience and community experience. From the courtroom side of things, I have handled the most serious criminal offenses in the state of Texas, from the filing of charges to seeing them through jury verdict. Additionally, I have supervised a number of junior attorneys and support staff, while handling my own case load which demonstrates my ability to lead while getting work done. From the community side of things, my years as a teacher in HISD and my years as a Big Brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston have brought to my face the issues that plague our community. I’ve witnessed first hand the impacts of drugs on communities and the impact of domestic violence in homes and the role that homelessness and mental health and substance abuse plays in our criminal justice system. By serving as an usher at my church, I’ve had real, genuine conversations with other community members about their concerns and their family concerns. By serving as a course instructor with HPD, I’ve had conversations with new and veteran police officers about the issues they face. In other words, I am best qualified for this position because I recognize the problems our community faces, I’ve faced them head on, and I recognize there is no ”one size fits” all solution as opposed to a case by case approach.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because our county has the chance to continue to build on the strides we’ve made in the last 4 years. Misdemeanor bail reform is not finished and there is still work to be done to get to where we need to be. In order for this work to happen, the judge for this bench needs to bring the perfect combination of legal experience and community experience to the conversation while showing an ability to work with the other judges. This race is important because it directly impacts every person who lives in or works in or raises their family in Harris County.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

People should vote for me because I am the candidate that this position calls for in 2023 and moving forward. As an attorney, I have experience handling the lowest level of cases to the most serious criminal offenses. Well before I decided to run for office, I got involved with the community when I decided to teach 8th grade students in a low-income area of Houston. Well before I decided to run for office, I decided to become an usher at my church because I have a heart for people and wanted to share with people the love that I had for my church. Well before I decided to run for office, I recognized that I had a responsibility to give back to members of our community who didn’t grow up with the opportunities I had and so I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston as a Big Brother. Well before I ran for office, I recognized that I had certain experiences and knowledge that I could share with police officers to better them and our community as a whole and so I started teaching a class on Racial Profiling and a class on Search and Seizure at the Houston Police Academy. People should vote for me in November because my whole life is a personification of me serving my community for the betterment of my community.

Interview with Teneshia Hudspeth

Teneshia Hudspeth

We are moving the focus back to local offices this week, with three interviews of incumbents running for re-election. Teneshia Hudspeth is seeking her first full term as Harris County Clerk. A longtime employee of the Clerk’s office before winning a special election in 2020 to finish out the term after Diane Trautman stepped down, Hudspeth is now one of five members of the Harris County Elections Commission, with oversight over the office of the Elections Administrator. We obviously talked about that, and about all of the things she is doing with the non-elections parts of the Clerk’s office, which is a quite a lot. You can listen to the interview I did with her in 2020 here, and you can listen to this year’s interview here:

PREVIOUSLY:

All interviews and Q&As through the primary runoffs
Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Chuck Crews – HD128
Cam Campbell – HD132
Stephanie Morales – HD138
Robin Fulford – CD02
Laura Jones – CD08

As always, everything you could want to know about the Democratic candidates can be found at the Erik Manning spreadsheet.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Michelle Moore

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Michelle Moore

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

Michelle Moore Presiding Judge of the 314th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Juvenile Delinquency and Child Welfare

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

I have removed ankle restraints from juveniles who appear in court. The youth are no longer coming to court in a jail jumpsuit. Instead, they wear a grey or burgundy shirt
and black khaki style pants.

Regarding Child Welfare, same sex couples and single persons are permitted to adopt a child(ren) in the 314th.

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

For court operations, I hope for the 314th courtroom to be completely paperless. Regarding juveniles, I will continue to use community rehabilitation programs. For child welfare, I will become a trauma informed court.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because children and parents’ lives are directly impacted. Our youth are vulnerable and impressionable and oftentimes when youthful offenders come to court, they are at a crossroads.

The Court is in the unique position to motivate the youth to change their life for the better. Conversely, if the youth’s interaction with the court is negative, it may push him/her participate in more illegal activities. Understanding the magnitude and reach of this position, is integral to being an effective judge.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am an experienced judge and I practiced Child Welfare Law before taking the bench. I have a breadth of knowledge and experience in the area of law for which I am seeking reelection. The youth in my court have experienced positive outcomes and I have achieved a reputation of being fair and efficient judge, which is exactly what Harris County deserves. There is no reason to change.

The imminent Latino plurality

It may already be here, but it’s not quite officially official just yet.

A closely watched estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday indicates that Texas may have passed a long-awaited milestone: the point where Hispanic residents make up more of the state’s population than white residents.

The new population figures, derived from the bureau’s American Community Survey, showed Hispanic Texans made up 40.2% of the state’s population in 2021 while non-Hispanic white Texans made up 39.4%. The estimates — based on comprehensive data collected over the 2021 calendar year — are not considered official.

The bureau’s official population estimates as of July 2021 showed the Hispanic and white populations virtually even in size. But in designating Hispanics as the state’s largest population group, the new estimates are the first to reflect the foreseeable culmination of decades of demographic shifts steadily transforming the state.

The incremental trend demographers have been tracking for years reflects the state’s profound cultural and demographic evolution. The state lost its white majority in 2004. However, the Hispanic population’s relative growth, through both migration and births, has not been reflected in many facets of the state’s economic and political landscape.

The 2020 census captured how close the state’s Hispanic and white populations had come, with just half a percentage point separating them at the time. By then, Texas had gained nearly 11 Hispanic residents for every additional white resident over the previous decade. And Hispanics had powered nearly half of the state’s overall growth of roughly 4 million residents since 2010.

Hispanic Texans are expected to make up a flat-out majority of the state’s population in the decades to come, but they are already on the precipice of a majority among children. The latest census estimates showed that 49.3% of Texans under the age of 18 are Hispanic.

Without corresponding political and economic gains, Hispanic residents’ economic and political reality is captured in the persistent disparities also reflected in the latest census data. Hispanic people living in Texas are disproportionately poor. They are also less likely to have reached the higher levels of education that often serve as pathways to social mobility and greater economic prosperity.

It was sometime during my first decade of blogging, maybe 2004 or 2005, when Anglos ceased to be the majority in Texas. The trends have kept on trending since then. As far as political representation goes, maybe we’ll get a shot at that in 2031 redistricting cycle – it ain’t happening this time around, not with this SCOTUS. But as Campos notes, we can at least do something about that locally this year. The Chron has more.

Judicial Q&A: Judge LaShawn Williams

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge LaShawn Williams

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

Judge LaShawn A. Williams, Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 3

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

These courts share jurisdiction with the district courts up to $250,000. Also, a county civil court at law in Harris County has jurisdiction over all civil matters and causes, original and appellate, prescribed by law for county courts, but does not have the jurisdiction of a probate court.

A county civil court at law has jurisdiction in appeals of civil cases from justice courts in Harris County. A county civil court at law also-regardless of the amount in controversy-has jurisdiction in statutory eminent domain proceedings and exclusive jurisdiction over inverse condemnation suits.

In addition to other jurisdiction provided by law, a county civil court at law has jurisdiction to:

1. decide the issue of title to real or personal property;
2. hear a suit to recover damages for slander or defamation of character;
3. hear a suit for the enforcement of a lien on real property;
4. hear a suit for the forfeiture of a corporate charter;
5. hear a suit for the trial of the right to property valued at $200 or more that has been levied on under a writ of execution, sequestration, or attachment; and
6. hear a suit for the recovery of real property.

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

We are protecting seniors and others from losing their homes after years of investment and sacrifice. We’ve helped and continue to help those who are burdened by collections and who just need a hand up. And for renters on the threshold of eviction, we’ve engaged volunteer lawyers and rent relief programs to help them keep the roof over their heads, while helping landlords stay in business. And along with all of those kept promises I am proud to say that we helped taxpayers save lots of money and made our positive mark on the climate by going paperless.

During this pandemic, our court has worked hard to successfully move the dockets avoiding backlog. We collaborated with Houston Volunteer lawyers and the law schools to provide legal representation to folks facing eviction. We provide oral hearings in proceedings for self represented litigants providing them opportunity to conference with the opposition in a fair and safe manner. When it was safe to do so, we opened the court back to in person trials enforcing CDC and local guidelines. We did this because I believe fair and equal access to the courts requires engagement and confrontation without the impediments of technology in a remote proceeding. Certain evidence, particular demeanor and credibility evidence, require testing, objection and consideration without internet interruption or other interferences.

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

I intend to continue using this platform to educate the public, bring more young lawyers into the judicial pipeline, and support groups that do the same. This Court will continue to advance and ensure equal access to justice. We intend to further advance our technological advances by making it easier for parties to receive notices about the status of their case via email. We went paperless in 2019 and then Covid hit. While this interrupted much of our work, we are excited to get back to things like providing improved forms and templates online for self-represented litigants and others.

We will continue working on making legal representation available in eviction cases as a matter of law, rather than just in the face of Covid. When the pandemic is gone, we plan to move forward with what we’ve learned and gained – like legal representation for tenants in eviction cases. We will also move forward in keeping some remote dockets, like bench trials and motions hearings.

I am really excited about being able to further engage and educate the community on equal access to justice and the Rule of Law by holding community events and safe places for real conversations with the judiciary.

5. Why is this race important?

It seems our democracy is moving at the speed of light. Now more than ever it is important that we all understand how our democracy works…that we have three branches of government, and each are equally important. Each affect our lives daily. Who we put into office in these three branches of government has serious implications. How safe we are, whether our children return home safe; our health care; women’s healthcare; gun safety; our elections and our right to vote. It seems all those things most important to us hang in the balance. This race is important because citizens should be confident in and trust our courts now like never before. We see how decisions, creating precedent, resound for decades. It matters today how a court decides, whether the Rule of Law if followed, whether justice is equal.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have run the court successfully over the past 3.5 years and intend to continue improving upon the administration of equal justice and access to the courts. I am tuned into the heart of the people of this diverse county. Each day I see their need and concerns in court – what’s important to them and how they are hurting; and how they are prospering! I take my seat on this bench as a call to service. I enjoy it and find it an honor to serve in this way. I am committed to ensuring the Rule of Law applies equally to everyone and that the administration of justice is fair. This county needs judges that are relatable, competent and who understand what is at stake. I have proven that I am qualified and can do the job. I want to continue serving this great county and our communities.

The new county COVID risk assessment system

We’ll see how it works.

Harris County has revamped its method for assessing the public’s risk for contracting COVID-19, replacing the threat level system that has been in place since early in the pandemic with a community level system that places a greater emphasis on new cases.

The change was made due to a “decoupling” of the relationship between new cases and new hospitalizations during the most recent wave of COVID-19 fueled by the BA.5 subvariant of omicron, Judge Lina Hildalgo said during a news conference Thursday. Harris County did not see a spike in hospitalizations as COVID-19 cases surged this summer, she said.

The new system will allow the public to make their own decisions about the level of risk they are comfortable with taking, knowing that the chance of being hospitalized with a severe illness is relatively low if they have been vaccinated and boosted, Hidalgo said.

“We’re turning a page on a phase of this virus, and I’m very hopeful that we won’t have to go back to a time when surge hampered the entirety of the community,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said the threat level system had been an important tool for gauging risk throughout the pandemic. It had been updated before, but this week’s changes represent a “wholesale redesign,” she said.

The new system uses a trio of color-coded community levels that indicate the risk for contracting COVID-19. Low is green, medium is yellow and high is orange. Harris County is currently yellow, but Hidalgo anticipated the community level could rise to orange with the risk for transmission increasing with children back in school.

[…]

The Harris County Public Health website offers guidance for each of the three threat levels, including recommendations for wearing a mask, traveling and social gatherings when the county is green, yellow or orange. The site will continue to offer other pertinent information, such as wastewater monitoring data and the percentage of county residents who have been vaccinated and boosted.

I had to find the appropriate webpage for this on my own – click the embedded image to get there. The old threat level webpage now gives a 404 error. This new system seems fine and reasonable. The main concern is about what might come next.

Q: So how are we doing these days? The numbers certainly look better than they did.

A: They are falling, no doubt about it. But we have to keep in mind that we don’t have a lot of details about the real number of cases. Most of us are getting diagnosed at home using home testing kits. The numbers were always underestimating by a factor of four or five. Now it’s probably seven to 10. So you have to have to look trends.

Numbers are going down. But here are numbers I keep reminding people of: We’re still losing 400 or 500 Americans a day to COVID, which makes it the third or fourth leading cause of death on a daily basis in the United States. There’s still a lot of terrible messaging. People say we don’t have as many hospitalizations. Or that everybody has been infected or vaccinated or vaccinated with breakthrough. All of that is true. On a population level, it has had mitigating effects. But that doesn’t help you make an individual health decision.

People conflate that with individual health decisions. If you’re unvaccinated, there’s still a possibility you could lose your life to COVID. Even if you’re vaccinated and not boosted, there’s that possibility. And we’re seeing the boosters aren’t holding up as well as we’d hoped. That’s one of the reasons I’m strongly encouraging people to get this new booster, which has the mRNA for the original lineage and an added one against BA.5. After four or five months, there’s risk again for being hospitalized. The coverage declines from 80 percent to 50 percent protection against hospitalization.

Then this BA.5, even though it’s going down, it’s a long, slow tail. It’ll be around well into the fall. And the toughest thing to get people to understand is what’s going to happen in the winter. Obviously there’s no way to predict. But I think it’s still quite likely that we’re going to see a new variant just like we have the last two winters. Last winter it was omicron, BA.1. The winter before that we saw alpha. And new variants are arising because we’ve done such a poor job vaccinating low and middle-income countries.

We don’t know what a next variant could look like. More like the original lineage? Or something more like BA.5? The advantage of the new combined booster is that it gives you two shots on goal. It’s more likely to cross-protect against what’s coming down the pike. That’s no guarantee. But we’ve never done this before in terms of what the FDA does. We’ve never vaccinated against something that might be lurking out there. It’s a paradigm shift. What’s happening, and I don’t think the FDA will phrase it this way, but we’re creeping toward a universal coronavirus vaccine.

That’s from a Q&A with Dr. Peter Hotez, who knows better than I do. But I do know enough to say that you should get the omicron booster. And I also know enough to say that political stunts that endanger public health are bad. I think that about covers it.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Lori Chambers Gray

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Lori Chambers Gray

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

I am Lori Chambers Gray, the presiding Judge of the 262nd District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 262nd District Court has jurisdiction over felony criminal cases ranging from state jail felony to capital murder.

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

One accomplishment during my time on this bench has been being elected by my fellow judges to serve as presiding judge over the mental health competency restoration docket. Serving in this position has been especially rewarding because it has allowed me to serve some of our communities most vulnerable, those suffering with mental illness. Through programs in place, persons with mental illness are connected to services and community resources. This docket has long history of persons successfully completing the programs and going on to living productive lives.

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

I want to help speed up the process of resolving cases in a fair and equitable manner. I want to make the court is even more efficient. In the appropriate cases where individuals are not incarcerated I want to insure that we provide reasonable alternatives to incarceration. In cases where individuals are placed on probation I want to insure that the conditions are strict, meaningful and appropriate for that offense.

5. Why is this race important?

This election is important because judges affect citizens lives in so many ways. In the criminal justice system in many ways judges are the backbone of the criminal justice system. Judges have a duty to insure that every accused citizen has a fair process and a fair trial, if they want one. At the same time, a judge must make sure that the community is safe. A number of judicial races are on the November mid term ballot and the peoples vote will decide who will serve as judge in these courts.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have had the pleasure to serve as the presiding judge of the 262nd district court for the last 3 1/2 years. In my time as a judge I have strived to insure that all people are treated fairly regardless of background. I practiced law for 29 years before being elected in 2018 and built a successful criminal law practice handling cases in Harris and surrounding counties.

I was born and raised in Houston and have strong ties with my community through volunteer organizations that I have served in the past and present. I understand the unique challenges and concerns of the citizens of Harris County and have the desire to make a positive difference for all. It is my hope that the voters keep me on the bench so that we can continue in our efforts to insure justice for all.

Community meetings about the Harris County bond referenda

Ask your questions, get some answers.

Harris County voters will decide in November whether to approve a bond package totaling $1.2 billion, with the vast majority aimed at road construction. On Monday, the county [began] a series of 24 community engagement meetings to share information and gather input about where the money will go if the bond propositions pass.

Voters will see three bond propositions on the ballot:

  • Proposition A: Up to $100 million for public safety, which could include law enforcement facilities, courtrooms, technology and improved data systems for court management and crime prevention.
  • Proposition B: Up to $900 million for transportation, including road rehabilitation and added capacity; roadway and neighborhood drainage improvements; walking, biking, and mass transit access; and safety projects to reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries.
  • Proposition C: Up to $200 million for parks and trails, including construction and maintenance of parks facilities and trails, including floodable parks, trail projects, and inclusive parks for people with disabilities.

If all are approved, at least $220 million would be spent in each of the county’s four precincts, while the $100 million in public safety investments would be countywide.

The county will hold community meetings through Oct.. 20, including 16 in-person meetings divided evenly among the four precincts and eight virtual meetings. Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese interpreters will be available.

[…]

The dates and locations of the meetings are subject to change. Residents can check the latest schedule or submit their comments online at harriscounty2022bond.org.

See here for the background. The schedule as known at the time of publication is in the Chron story, but it is subject to change so check out that Harris County 2022 Bond page before heading out.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Linda Dunson

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Linda Dunson

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

My name is Linda Marie Dunson. I am the Presiding Judge of the 309th Family District Court in Harris County, Texas. I grew up in a small town in east Texas. I grew up very poor and disadvantaged. As a child decisions were made about me by others who were not my family, nor did they live in my neighborhood, nor did they look like me. Those who were in “authority” assessed my situations and made judgments and predetermined my future without giving me the opportunity to speak for myself. They were wrong! They fueled the desire in me, the fire, the passion for advocating on behalf of others, especially children. I believe in equal access to justice; that every human should be treated with dignity and respect and that every litigant should have the opportunity to be heard.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Family District court oversees matters such as divorce, adoption, child support, child protective services, and other related matters.

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

The 309th has been able to manage the flow of cases such that justice has not been delayed during a flood, a freeze, after effects of hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, my main accomplishment is being able to apply the law in a manner to change the trajectory of families who are impacted by the Texas Department of Family and Protective services by recognizing the impact that trauma plays in the lives of those families and how treating that trauma can lead to a more positive outcome. The 309th has been selected as one of six Trauma Informed Courts across Texas.

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

I will continue to collaborate with community organizations and attorneys to create a network of resources to assist families with facing and healing the effects of their respective traumas. I hope to be able to measure the positive outcomes in terms of increased family reunification and reduced recidivism. Dignity, respect, integrity and fair impartial interpretation and application of the law shall always be paramount.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is so important because there is so much progress being made in the courts in general and the 309th in particular and that progress needs to continue. Let’s keep it moving forward.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have been tried and tested. Family is my passion. I am compassionate. I understand the human condition. I understand that there are many ethnic groups with many cultural norms living in America. I understand that there are individuals who may believe differently than I in regards to religion and sexuality.

I have a demeanor that is becoming a Judge. I am consistent in my dealing with people. I believe that everyone is entitled to a fair, impartial and just decision. I listen and I connect with people. Moreover, I believe the rule of law should be respected.

I believe that lawyers ought to be allowed to represent their client zealously without being disrespected by the bench. Let the lawyers practice law and let the Judge be the judge.

People should vote for me because I genuinely care. I have advocated for others ever since I can remember. I have been in the trenches. I have given brain, brawn and bucks to improve the human condition, expecting nothing in return.

I am a Progressive Democrat with traditional democratic values. I believe in Faith, Opportunity, Equality, Hard Work (Jobs), Education, Healthcare. I believe in embracing differences. I believe in equality, justice and fairness. And, I truly believe that a person should be judged by their character.

People should vote for me because I want to continue the fight for equality, justice and fairness.

I am the best and most qualified candidate. I bring with me knowledge, skill, an unmatched personal experience and unsurpassed compassion.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Shannon Baldwin

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Shannon Baldwin

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

Judge Shannon Brichelle Baldwin, I preside over Harris County Criminal Misdemeanor Court #4.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears misdemeanor class B and class A cases. The maximum punishment is up to a $4,000 fine and up to 1 year in jail. This court is an appellate court for class C misdemeanors.

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

In my first two years, I served as the Local Administrative Judge over all 20 Harris County Courts comprising of 16 criminal courts and 4 civil courts; for three years I presided over an additional docket for Misdemeanor SOBER Court (a treatment court for persons with alcohol/drug addictions); currently I also preside over the Misdemeanor Veterans Court (a treatment court for Veterans with alcohol/drug addictions and PTSD). I’ve maintained an above average clearance rate despite inheriting one of the largest dockets after Harvey. I reduced the docket despite having limited ability to conduct jury trials due to building construction and COVID restrictions. I use scheduling orders to continue the efficient movement of cases. Collectively, the Harris County Criminal Courts have instituted the Community Care Court where one of our first programs is the Fresh Start Program. In that program, the courts are able to seal the criminal history of defendants who have paid their debt to society.

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

Going forward, I will continue to reduce the backlog assisted with the use of the scheduling order. I hope to accomplish a domestic violence court and a fully functioning (financed) mental health court. Those specialty courts would address the majority of cases in our courts and provide a more efficient means to get them resolved. I would like to propose a computer lab run by Probation or that is open to indigent defendants with no access to the internet. They often have online classes and typically have difficulty finishing classes because they lack access.

5. Why is this race important?

Criminal Misdemeanor Courts encounter individuals at low level and oftentimes the beginning of a potential criminal future. So, we have the opportunity to make a big impact at an early stage. We can target issues and seek resolutions as a part of punishment. With successful resolution of “issues”, we can reduce crime and completely change the trajectory of an individual’s life. I chose misdemeanor court over felony court for this reason.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am a servant leader and I ran for this position to serve the citizens of Harris County and make it better. In many ways, I have accomplished making Harris County better. However, there is still work to be done and that takes time. I am dedicated to seeing community safety increase and not at the expense of citizens’ Constitutional rights. I’m dedicated to keeping the courts open with free access to everyone. I’m dedicated to maintaining fair and impartial courts where one’s race, color, creed, religion or sexual orientation has no bearing on their case. I am dedicated to equal protection under the law and justice for ALL! I’m humbly asking for your support and votes to continue as Judge for Harris County Criminal Court #4.

Monkeypox case rate slows

Some good news.

Monkeypox infection rates are slowing in Houston, data shows, with health officials pointing to changing behavior as the key reason for the decline.

The 14-day average of daily new cases dropped by 43 percent, from .23 cases per 100,000 people, to .13, between Aug. 23 and Sept. 2, the last day for which data is available. As of Wednesday, Houston and Harris County had recorded a combined total of 693 cases.

Dr. David Persse, Houston chief medical officer, said he thinks it’s too early to attribute the drop to vaccinations, which became available in Houston in late July. Most people have yet to receive full protection from their second dose, administered about a month after the first dose.

“I believe the change … is largely because of individuals changing behavior and thinking twice about some of the high-risk behaviors,” Persse said during a Thursday Q&A session with reporters.

[…]

More than 5,200 people have received their first dose of the vaccine from the Houston Health Department. Harris County Public Health has administered the first dose to an additional 3,600 people.

Persse and Dr. Erick Brown, Harris County’s local health authority, said there are “plenty” of doses left and encouraged eligible people to schedule appointments by calling Houston’s hotline at 832-393-4220 or Harris County’s hotline at 832-927-0707.

“I’d like to strongly emphasize we are not out of the woods,” Brown said.

Monkeypox was never the public health crisis that COVID was – it’s a lot less contagious, and a lot less deadly – but we also had a vaccine already in place and needed to get it to a much smaller population in order to get the outbreak under control, and we didn’t do as well as we should have. We’re in better shape now, and I have hope we can continue to drive the numbers down. In the meantime, if you’re eligible for this vaccine, please do get it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Audrie Lawton Evans

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Audrie Lawton Evans

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

Hello, my name is Audrie Lawton Evans and I am the presiding judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The county civil courts at law hear all civil matters with the amount in controversy of up to $250,000 and has jurisdiction to hear all appeals of civil cases, including evictions, from justice courts in Harris County. The court also has jurisdiction over statutory eminent domain proceedings, suits involving real property disputes, and slander and defamation cases.

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

On August 10, 2021, I was unanimously appointed as the presiding judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1. Approximately four months later, I was elected by my colleagues as the Administrative Judge of all the County Courts at Law. As the Administrative Judge, I am tasked with maintaining cohesiveness among the courts, disseminating information to our constituents, and reviewing and ensuring that our courts are following all Texas Supreme Court and other administrative orders. During my tenure thus far, I implemented our Fall Open House, an online event to give the public and attorneys a chance to hear all about the court and provide resources to the community. I also facilitated Active Shooter training for all courtroom personnel as well as other safety procedures.

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

In the upcoming year, I hope to focus on reviewing the courts’ systems and procedures to streamline the administrative side of the judicial process. At our very core, the court provides a service to the community. As such, I would like to revamp the court’s website and online presence. In addition, because of the pandemic, the court system has had to utilize technology in a whole new way. For example, I plan to continue zoom hearings for certain cases where it makes sense. Overall, I want to ensure that a person’s experience with my court is practical and easy to navigate.

5. Why is this race important?

The judiciary’s job is to facilitate the efficient resolution of disputes. As a judge, I am responsible for maintaining decorum in the court room, making sure that all parties have equal access to the legal system, and to render the prompt and fair resolution of cases filed in court.

This race is important because in our society, protecting the integrity of the bench is becoming increasingly important. Local elections probably have the most impact on our day-to-day lives.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have always had an affinity for this court. As a practicing attorney for 20 years, I have tried thousands of cases in the county courts at law. I have the requisite experience and the right temperament to be a great judge. Since my appointment, I have hit the ground running, managing a large docket from day one. In 2021, the county civil courts at law have disposed of over 18,000 cases. Collectively, my colleagues and I have coordinated with rental assistance programs to help over 73,000 tenants stay in their homes while landlords collected nearly $300 Million dollars thru the programs. In addition, since 2018, the courts have also modernized all court filings to electronic filing system passing savings to taxpayers.

I am humbled every day by my position and the great weight of the responsibility I hold. A vote for me is a vote for experience, fairness, and integrity. I look forward to my continued service to Harris County as judge of the Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Brian Warren

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Brian Warren

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

My name is Brian Warren and I have the Honor of being the Judge of the 209th Criminal District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court handles all felony offenses, from Capital Murders, Aggravated Robberies, and Sexual Assault to low level drug possession cases

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

Since being elected judge, I have continued to make changes to improve the administration of justice. I have instituted the first scheduling order for criminal cases in Harris County. This order has been adopted by a third of the judges in Harris County. This scheduling order has eliminated needless settings as opposed to the old fashioned way of setting every case once a month. . I also adopted a zoom docket to resolve discovery disputes. I was able to secure a pre-trial officers in every court, in order to cut down on the wait times for defendants, lawyers and judges. The Honorable Judge Rosenthal has said in a hearing that Judge Warren “sets the standard for all of the felony judges to emulate” when it comes to bail reform in Harris County District Courts. With the help of the district attorney’s office, I also implemented an e-warrant system that allows judges to sign warrants electronically.

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

Recently, I also have proposed a plan that would utilize our associate judges, similar to the systems used in federal court and some surrounding counties. This plan would divert our judicial resources and all first setting bond defendants to our associate judges. Allowing our elected judges to spend more time resolving cases and eliminating a significant amount of foot traffic in our courthouse which is inadequate to meet the needs of our community. I would love the opportunity to continue to innovate and make meaningful changes to our criminal justice systems in the future.

5. Why is this race important?

If you haven’t seen the inside of a courtroom recently, you are very fortunate. While some people never find themselves facing a judge, there is a good chance they have a family member or friend who has been involved in a legal case. Participating in judicial elections gives you the power to vote for people you believe to be qualified, committed and conscientious. Judicial elections are no less important, emotional or personal than senate or municipal elections. The work of judges cuts to the very core of humanity; don’t ignore its significance.

6. Why should people vote for you in November

I have over 20 years of experience as a lawyer in the criminal justice system, first as a prosecutor, then as a defense attorney, and now as a judge. My opponent has never practiced criminal law in his career. He has never appeared as a lawyer in any Harris County Criminal District Courts. If elected, his first day will be the first time he has ever set foot in the 209th District Court. The cases we handle in the criminal courthouse are too important and serious, to entrust to someone with ZERO criminal experience as a lawyer.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Sonya Heath

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Sonya Heath

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

Judge Sonya Heath, 310th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Family.

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

Implementing Zoom hybrid hearings. Especially for the CPS cases where we have had a huge increase in parental participation.

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

Setting up a better type of e-hearing system (an online calendaring system).

5. Why is this race important?

District Court Family judges have the ability to take your children, your property and your freedom. You want someone with a good grasp of the law and even temperament.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

As the incumbent I have been on bench 4 years. I have been at work on a regular basis for our County’s families. People need their day in Court. Some people just need to be heard so they can move on with their lives. My own children are grown now, but I have lived what most of the people coming before me are going through. I was a single parent, unfortunately divorced, adopted a child, and went back and forth on custody three times with my children’s father. I bring experience both with the law and real life that make me suited for this bench.

Our overall vax level is down

Not great!

The coverage rate for routine childhood vaccines – or the percentage of kids getting them – dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic and have yet to recover, according to statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Health care providers said many families skipped doctor’s visits during the pandemic to avoid exposure to the virus. But the drop is also due to a rise in “conscientious exemptions,” or parents and guardians who refuse to get their children vaccinated for religious, moral or philosophical reasons.

While anti-vaccine movements have existed since the smallpox vaccine debuted in the early 1800s, some worry the pushback against the COVID-19 vaccine may have a detrimental effect on the uptake for routine childhood immunizations, too.

“I think that, certainly, [the pandemic] is a good explanation for this,” said Terri Burke, the executive director of the Houston nonprofit The Immunization Partnership. “But there is no question that the vaccine hesitancy, skepticism, misinformation [and] disinformation that circulates around the COVID vaccine has bled over into childhood vaccines.”

A study published in the journal Vaccine found that from 2019 to 2020, immunization rates fell 47 percent among 5-month-olds and 58 percent among 16-month-olds.

Texas did see a slight increase in vaccination rates earlier this year, but they still remain below pre-pandemic levels, said Tasmiah Nuzhath, a Texas A&M School of Public Health doctoral candidate who led the study. That’s a concern because regardless of the reason, a lower percentage of vaccinated children means heightened for outbreaks of a disease like the measles, she said.

“Even a few-percentage dip in vaccination rates will put children at risk of getting sick, and could affect community protections against serious diseases,” Nuzhath said.

[…]

In the Houston area, there are some signs that coverage rates may be slowly recovering from the pandemic. The HOPE Clinic, for example, had a large demand for the shots before students returned to school this fall, Clinical Director Kara Green said.

The Immunization Clinic in Stafford has also seen more children coming in for their vaccines this year, but coverage rates are “still not where [they] should be,” Nursing Director Yvette Cheeks said.

During the 2011-12 school year, coverage rates were at least 97.4 percent for each of the routine vaccines required for kindergarten students, and at least 96.6 percent for each required for seventh grade.  By 2021-22, rates fell to a range of 93.5 percent to 95.9 percent for kindergarten, and 91.9 percent to 98 percent for seventh grade.

Some of the decline can be attributed to children who haven’t gotten their shots yet, but may do so later. Those “delinquency” rates topped 3 percent for the chickenpox, polio and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis) vaccines for kindergarten and around 6 percent for the meningitis and DTaP vaccines for seventh grade.

It’s also due to a rise in conscientious exemptions. Ten years ago, the chickenpox vaccine for kindergarten had the highest rate of conscientious objections at 0.8 percent. By last year, rates hit at least 2.1 percent for each kindergarten vaccine and at least 1 percent for each seventh grade vaccine.

Those percentages may not seem like a lot, but they represent an increase from 28,432 conscientious objections across Texas in 2011-12 to 85,726 last year, according to TDSHS statistics.

Green and Cheeks believe coverage rates could increase through better access to the vaccines. Both the HOPE Clinic and the Immunization Clinic offer vaccines to lower-income and uninsured patients.

However, Green noted that the HOPE Clinic sees families cancel their child’s vaccine appointment due to issues such as a lack of transportation, or not having child care for their other children. Pop-up vaccination clinics at Houston schools or other community sites could help increase uptake, she said.

“I think if we make it easier for families to get these things done, then we really open up a lot of opportunities,” she said.

We need to do everything we can to make sure that all needed vaccines are easily available to all that want them. That’s a bigger problem that can be solved locally, but we have to try. Anyone can claim to be “pro-life”, but unless you’re pro-getting-lifesaving-shots-into-kids-arms, you’re just full of hot air.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Jerry Simoneaux

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Jerry Simoneaux

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

I am Jerry Simoneaux and I preside over Harris County Probate Court 1

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Probate Courts help families coping with death and disability. People come to probate court to appoint an executor for a deceased loved one in order to pay final bills and distribute their assets. People also come to probate court to appoint a guardian for loved ones with diminished capacity, such as dementia or intellectual disabilities. Sometimes, people fight over estates and we hear those contested matters, too.

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

I have done more to fundamentally improve our courts and the practice of probate law than any other judge of this court before me. I took a court with 1990’s technology, accessed $400,000 of non-taxpayer money, and fully upgraded the four probate courts in Harris County. Now, the probate courts are the most technologically advanced courts in the county. That means we can offer remote and in-person hearings simultaneously and seamlessly. I have made it very easy for people with mobility impediments (and busy schedules) to appear in court. Many more of my accomplishments are listed on my website at www.judgejerry1.com

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

I am working to increase the availability of pro bono attorneys to help families who cannot afford one. I have been on the board of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers since 2019 and we are constantly finding ways to bring new volunteer attorneys into probate court. I am also working with the County Commissioners Court and the State Legislature to form a new Probate Court 5 to help ease the strain on the four existing courts. We have not had a new court created in over 25 years and the population has nearly doubled since then.

5. Why is this race important?

Because death and disability are indiscriminate, we see people from all walks of life. That is different from any other court, so it is essential to have a judge who is welcoming to everyone and who will provide as safe space for all. As a trilingual, openly LGBTQ judge, I know how important it is to have representation on the bench who also reaches out to all communities to ensure suitable inclusion.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have received the highest rating of any elected judge from the Houston Bar Association (Judicial Evaluation Poll 2019 and 2021) and the LGBTQ Caucus. I am an innovator who has completely transformed the courts by giving greater access to the public and creating efficiencies for attorneys who practice here. And, I have lots more plans for the next four years to continue to improve our courts.

UH-TSU Texas Trends poll: Abbott 49-Beto 42, and Hidalgo 52-Mealer 42

From their webpage, scroll down to Report 1 and Report 2:

  • In the race for governor, Republican Greg Abbott leads Democrat Beto O’Rourke by 7% among likely voters, 49% to 42%, with 7% undecided and 1% intending to vote for Libertarian Mark Tippetts and 1% for the Green Party’s Delilah Barrios.
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  • Abbott holds a 29% (61% to 32%) lead over O’Rourke among white voters while O’Rourke holds a 57% (72% to 15%) lead over Abbott among Black voters, a 15% (53% to 38%) lead among Latino voters and a 9% (48% to 39%) lead among those voters with a mixed or other ethnic/racial identity.
  • Abbott and O’Rourke are deadlocked at 45% among women voters, while Abbott enjoys an 18% (55% to 37%) lead over O’Rourke among men.
  • In the race for lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick leads Democrat Mike Collier by 6% among likely voters, 49% to 43%, with 8% undecided.
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  • Patrick holds a 26% (60% to 34%) lead over Collier among white voters while Collier holds a 63% (78% to 15%) lead over Patrick among Black voters, a 14% (51% to 37%) lead among Latino voters and a 5% (44% to 39%) lead among those voters with a mixed or other ethnic/racial identity.
  • Collier holds a narrow 1% lead over Patrick among women voters (46% to 45%) while Patrick enjoys a 15% (54% to 39%) lead over Collier among men.
  • In the race for attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton leads Democrat Rochelle Mercedes Garza by 3% among likely voters, 45% to 42%, with 10% undecided and 3% intending to vote for Libertarian Mark Ash.
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  • Paxton holds a 23% (56% to 33%) lead over Garza among white voters while Garza holds a 61% (75% to 14%) lead over Paxton among Black voters, a 16% (51% to 35%) lead among Latino voters, and a 15% (45% to 30%) lead among those voters with a mixed or other ethnic/racial identity.
  • Garza holds a 5% lead over Paxton among women voters (45% to 40%) while Paxton enjoys a 13% (51% to 38%) lead over Garza among men.

In addition to the statewide election analysis of likely voters, the 2022 Texas Trends survey looks at the race for county judge in Harris County, the nation’s third largest county and Texas’ largest, with a population of more than 4.5 million residents.

While the non-election related reports we will subsequently release focus on all Harris County adults aged 18 years and older, this county-specific election report is based on the analysis of a sample population of 195 likely voters, with a confidence interval of +/- 7.0%. Given the small size of this population, caution should be used in interpreting the results due to the comparatively large margin of errors surrounding all of the estimates.

This county-specific election study is presented as the second report in the overall series, and it includes the preferences for candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in addition to county judge.

  • The vote intention in the race for Harris County judge is 52% for Democrat Lina Hidalgo and 42% for Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer, with 6% undecided.

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  • This 10 percentage point lead by Hidalgo is notably higher than the 1 percentage point lead she garnered in the Hobby School election survey released in July.
  • Del Moral Mealer holds a 19 percentage point advantage over Hidalgo among white voters, 58% to 39%.
  • Hidalgo holds a 71 percentage point advantage over del Moral Mealer among Black voters, 79% to 8%, and a 44 percentage point advantage among Latino voters, 69% to 25%.
  • Hidalgo enjoys a 14 percentage point lead over del Moral Mealer among women, 53% to 39%, but only a 2 percentage point lead among men, 50% to 48%.
  • Del Moral Mealer enjoys a 16 percentage point lead over Hidalgo, 56% to 40%, among the combined Silent Generation/Baby Boomers cohort, and Hidalgo a comparable 16 percentage point lead over del Moral Mealer among Generation X, 54% to 38%.
  • Hidalgo is the overwhelming favorite of the combined Millennials/Generation Z cohort, with a 40 percentage point lead in vote intention over del Moral Mealer, 67% to 27%.

That’s a lot to take in, but it’s all there on their site. Note that while this poll references the UH/Hobby poll from July that had Abbott up 49-44 and had Judge Hidalgo only up by one point, 48-47, this one is different in two ways. One is just simply that this poll is a collaboration between UH and TSU whereas the previous one was all UH. I don’t think that makes any real difference, but there it is anyway. The other is that the July poll of Harris County was (I assume, anyway) a separate sample of 321 voters, while this one is (again, I presume) a subsample of 195 likely voters from the larger all-state population of 1,312. I don’t know why they chose to do it this way, and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s how I read it.

The full data for the statewide report is here, and for the Harris County subsample here. My observations, bullet-point-style:

– The July poll was also post-Dobbs, so at least as far as these surveys go there’s not been any change in the overall environment since then. Insert anodyne statement about individual data points and move on.

– In the July poll, Beto was down five overall and led in Harris County by nine; in this poll Beto is down seven overall and leads in Harris County by 13 (it was 51-42 in July and it’s 53-40 in September, as you can see in the second report). Again, if there were a live feed of me as I typed up this post, you would have seen me shrug right there. Beto beat Cruz in Harris County by a 58-41 margin in 2018, and he’s within range of that in this poll, though as noted one with a higher-than-usual margin of error. All I’m saying here is that historically there’s been a relationship between the statewide percentage for a Dem candidate and that same candidate in Harris County. As such, in general if Beto is doing better in Harris I’d expect him to be doing better across the state. But we’ll see.

– That July poll had Mealer leading Hidlago among Latino voters by three points. This one has Hidalgo up among those same voters by 44. I feel very confident saying that it cannot be the case that both of those figures were accurate. Maybe they’re both off, but if one is right then the other is extremely wrong.

– I didn’t post the generational numbers for the statewide races, but overall Hidalgo did much better than the others. Of course, this is a subsample of a subsample, so be super duper cautious in drawing any conclusions from this. For what it’s worth, in the three statewide races the Dems were around 55% for the Millennial/Gen Z cohort and the Republicans were in the 30-35 range.

– The main reason Rochelle Garza is closer to Ken Paxton than Beto and Collier are to Abbott and Patrick is that Paxton has less support overall, clocking in at 45%. Most likely, this is just a number of Abbott/Patrick voters moving into the “don’t know” pile in this race. Maybe they’re really not sure how they’re voting, and maybe they’re Republicans who don’t want to admit, even in a webpanel, that they’re voting for Paxton. I do think Garza has a chance to be the top Dem performer, but I don’t think you can necessarily conclude that from this poll, as her level of support is in line with Beto and Collier. She did do best in Harris County, leading Paxton 54-36 in that sample, compared to 53-40 for each of the other two Dems.

– This is not the first poll I’ve seen this cycle that had Abbott getting about 15% of Black voters, which is about five points better than I’d normally expect. I don’t know if this is sample weirdness or if there’s something there, like the Trump bump among Latinos was visible in some 2020 polls, though not all.

– Finally, as far as Latino voters go, imagine me shrugging again. Some of what we saw in 2020 was low-propensity voters turning out, but not all of it. I genuinely have no idea what to expect.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Cory Sepolio

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Cory Sepolio

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

Judge Cory Don Sepolio of the 269th Civil District Court of Texas

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 269th is a civil court dealing primarily with disputes over property, contracts, money, elections, injuries, health issues, and business activities, among others.

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

I eliminated the ineffective practice of unnecessary court appearances. The Harris County Court house is a sophisticated yet often crowded venue. Recently the relocation of courts followed by the damage to the Criminal Court House in Harvey has the Civil Justice building overburdened. With electronic filing courts should allow matters to be heard on the submission docket rather than requiring all matters to have oral hearing. The pandemic lessened the burden yet created a health risk for in-person attendance. If oral hearings are requested courts should allow participation by telephonic appearance when appropriate. The 269th under my direction embraced “zoom” and eliminated unnecessary docket appearances. The litigants should have the option of choosing how they wish their matters heard. This change saves litigants on legal fees, parking and decreases courthouse crowding.

The best practice in most cases is for a judge to give limited instructions on voir dire and then turn the questioning over to the trial attorneys. In my career I sat through some judges’ voir dire that ran as long as five hours. This was on routine, non-capital cases. These lengthy speeches by the judges were ineffective, delayed justice, and annoyed the jurors. Judges should not use the courtroom for campaigning. During my time as judge of the 269th I read the required instructions, introduce the parties and staff, and provide an estimated time of trial prior to lawyer questions. This takes less than 10 minutes and is respectful of everyone’s time.

It is my primary duty to ensure a safe, fair, and unbiased venue for all litigants, witnesses and their attorneys. This is regardless of race, color, creed, orientation, gender or country of origin. Historically judges refused to follow the law regarding same-sex marriage. Many prior judges belonged to groups that discriminated against the Hispanic and immigrant communities. This is unacceptable. Since taking the bench I have fought to ensure justice for all.

I refuse to allow those who appear in the 269th to be harassed or frightened. Everyone is entitled to a fair day in court without outside burden.

I proudly implemented a method I call the “Batson pause” in trial where I ensure impermissible strikes are not permitted. In this way we prevent prospective jurors from impermissible discrimination due to their ethnic background or gender.

During the pandemic I issued a moratorium on dismissals for want of prosecution in the 269th. Many lawyers, witnesses, and litigants were ill or displaced during the pandemic and I did not believe it equitable to dismiss their cases simply because they could not respond to email inquiries during that time.

In 2022, the 269th has disposed of more cases than all 24 other civil district courts, except one.

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

When I took the bench in 2019 I shared the 269th with two criminal district court judges as a result of the continuing displacement resulting from hurricane Harvey. In the early Spring of 2020, the pandemic shut down the courts the exact day the criminal court judges were able to return to their own courts. The past four years required sharing and patience to ensure justice functioned in all courts. Despite these obstacles the 269th has performed admirably and continued to try cases. I am thrilled to finally be back in the 269th and have all facilities to continue our mission of ensuring justice and equality to all litigants whom have cases in the 269th.

5. Why is this race important?

I cherish our judicial system and earnestly wish to maintain the integrity of our trial courts. We began this campaign with the goal of ensuring that the citizens, litigants, and trial attorneys of Harris County have a qualified and fair judge on the bench. Those of us who maintained active trial dockets in Harris County were frustrated by several years of practicing before temperamental and inexperienced judges. The litigants and lawyers whom the 269th serves expect the level of preparation and justice the court currently provides and deserve for it to continue. I shall see that it does.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Campaigning this long has come at a great sacrifice to my family. The time and effort spent on this campaign is great. I am determined to win this race and ensure experience, equality, and justice for all continues in the 269th Civil District Court.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Meet Clifford Tatum

Harris County’s new Elections Administrator has a chat with the Chron’s Jen Rice about his new job and the fact that early voting starts in less than seven weeks.

Why did you start working in elections and why do you continue doing it?

I started out with the Georgia Secretary of State as a securities enforcement attorney. And after a couple of years, enforcing the securities law, the elections division needed a staff attorney. So I became the assistant director of legal affairs for the state elections division, which then worked with the Georgia Secretary of State on a number of issues related to the state election board, election law enforcement, election code enforcement. And I guess you could say that … I kind of got bit by the public service bug, and that foray into the elections division in 2002 has turned into a lifetime of public service. I enjoy the fact that I’m supporting democracy and helping voters express their voice.

When election-related topics come up at Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, two of the commissioners typically raise the argument that elections should be run by elected officials, not an appointed election administrator, which was the model used in Harris County until 2020. Do you have a response to that criticism?

If we talk about the the county clerk who was running the election side of the process, they were responsible for the election side, but they had to get the information to actually conduct the election from the tax assessor. The tax assessor was responsible for the voter registration side. At the end of the day, you’re looking to two separate entities for accountability. And that gap allows for there to be this flux of, what really happened here? So, combining the two offices, you avoid that. It now becomes a single unit that’s responsible for the entire operation. And you actually have a greater level of accountability because both operations are now under the same unit and the information flows much better because there’s not a go-between.

The mail ballot rejection rate is an ongoing issue in Harris County. What is your plan for getting the mail ballot rejection rate down and to what extent are you expecting to be able to address that for this election?

The good news is that the team here has now experienced the new mail ballot requirements for now, I think, three elections. We’ve made a lot of internal strides on how to assist voters in making sure they provide the correct information to allow their ballot not to be rejected. And then if they, for whatever reasons, fail to include that information, we’ve identified internal procedures to immediately respond back to the voter, highlighting what needs to be corrected in order for that ballot to be resolved and counted. The unfortunate aspect about all of that is time. If a voter waits too late, then there’s a likelihood that the voter can’t cure an issue if they didn’t provide the correct information.

I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll have a good experience this fall. Some of the factors on which Tatum will be judged are how well the equipment works and how easily equipment errors are overcome, how long the lines are, how many mail ballots are rejected, and how long it takes to see results and updates on Election Night. My hope is that he and his office will communicate quickly and effectively when there are any issues – it’s a big county, probably over a million people will be voting, there will be issues – so that at least everyone will have a chance to be informed and make adjustments. I intend to do an interview with him myself at some point, but that can wait until after this election.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Tanya Garrison

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Tanya Garrison

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

Tanya Garrison, Judge of the 157th Civil District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil cases in which parties are seeking equitable, declaratory, or monetary relief.

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

Increased efficiency in calling cases to trial. Increased jury trials. Opening the Court for marriage equality. Began taking law school interns for the first time in the history of the Court. Named Trial Judge of the Year in 2021 by the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists.

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

More of the same. Increased educational opportunities for young lawyers and law students. Continued focus on continuing legal education for trial lawyers.

5. Why is this race important?

It is important to elect people to the trial courts who have experience in these courts as not only the judge but as practicing lawyers. Judges need to see the whole forest for the trees to effectively administer justice. Due process requires more than a since of fairness and equality. It requires knowing why the rules of procedure, rules of evidence, and rule of law exist so that they can be applied fairly and equally.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I’m a true believer in the jury system and that our civil courts are the best way to resolve disputes, and I know I will do a great job as a civil court judge. The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution is a crucial part of our democracy. The Third Branch of Government should be protected by judges that respect the importance of courtroom justice for all people.
I can best summarize the reasons I am running in three points: (1) passion for the work; (2) experience; and (3) perspective.

Passion. I truly love being a trial lawyer and working in the courtroom. I respect all parts of the process and believe that when the law is applied equally, the right result is possible. Being a Judge is my dream.

Experience. I have practiced civil trial law since I graduated law school in 2000 and have been a part of trial teams with over 20 commercial cases going to a full jury verdict. I am Board Certified in Civil Appellate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and have almost 45 appeals with my name on them. I am a member of various trial law associations, including the American Board of Trial Advocates and the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists. In 2011, I was named Outstanding Young Lawyer in Houston by the Houston Young Lawyers Association.

Perspective. I am someone who sincerely believes that the greatest part of our government is its people. The strength of our judiciary comes from the diversity of our people coming together to participate in our jury system. I am a lifelong Democrat who values all backgrounds and life experiences. I want to create a courtroom experience that welcomes everyone despite the fact that courtrooms and the controversies that are resolved there are intimidating and difficult. Everyone is entitled to a fair and impartial trial, and it is my goal to ensure that they get one.

All interviews and judicial Q&As with nominees so far

Back in February, right before the primary, I posted a list of all of the candidate interviews and judicial Q&As I had done. A couple more Q&A responses came in after that, and I did some further interviews for the primary runoffs, so that post is out of date and also now contains people who will not be on the November ballot. So with that in mind, here’s a full updated list as I prepare to bring you more of these for November. Enjoy!

Interviews

Duncan Klussman, CD38

Jay Kleberg, Land Commissioner
Janet Dudding, Comptroller

Staci Childs, SBOE4

Sen. John Whitmire, SD15

Jolanda Jones, HD147

Lesley Briones, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Carla Wyatt, Harris County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk (Incumbent)

Judicial Q&As

Cheri Thomas, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2

Gemayel Haynes, 183rd Criminal District Court
Katherine Thomas, 184th Criminal District Court
Andrea Beall, 185th Criminal District Court
Beverly Armstrong, 208th Criminal District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Angela Lancelin, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Dedra Davis, 270th Civil District Court
Dianne Curvey, 280th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court
Judge Leah Shapiro, 313th Family District Court
Veronica Monique Nelson, 482nd Criminal District Court

Manpreet Monica Singh, County Civil Court At Law #4
Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Erika Ramirez, County Criminal Court At Law #8

Steve Duble, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Dolores Lozano, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

As before, you can see a full list of my interviews and a whole lot more info about the Democratic candidates on the Erik Manning spreadsheet. Look for many more to come starting tomorrow.

More evidence of misdemeanor bail reform’s success

Lower costs, fewer wrongful incarcerations and guilty pleas, less recidivism. What more do you want?

Fewer misdemeanor defendants went on to commit crimes in Harris County after federal litigation in 2017 aimed at curtailing the jailing of low-income people charged with low-level offenses, according to a recent study.

A 13 percent rise in pre-trial releases within 24 hours of a defendant’s arrest also followed the judicial injunction, the court order that researchers found led to positive reforms in Houston’s criminal justice system. Judicial jurisdictions elsewhere have watched the progress of Harris County’s reforms to create their own, researchers with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania said.

“I think that it shows that misdemeanor bail reform, when implemented properly, can work,” said Paul Heaton, academic director for the Quattrone Center — a research and policy institute with the University of Pennsylvania. “It led to less costly punishment for the defendants and tax payers — it didn’t increase crime.”

The findings come amid years of tense debate over the bail reform’s implications and whether it has any connection to the local rise in homicides and other violent crimes, which increased nationwide during the pandemic. Prosecutors, law enforcement, bail bondsmen and victims’ rights advocates are among the opponents of the changes.

Houston police on Wednesday said that non-violent crime had decreased by five percent since this time in 2021 — and violent crime had dropped 10 percent during the same time frame.

Researchers went through about 517,000 misdemeanor and felony cases in Harris County filed from 2015 until last May, but focused on the months surrounding the start of the injunction — prior to the havoc that Hurricane Harvey and the pandemic caused in the courts. Unresolved cases increased later in 2017 — likely because of court closures in the storm’s wake, according to the study.

Conviction rates dropped by 15 percent, and the length of jail sentences for those low-level offenses also declined by 15 percent after the injunction, the study found. The injunction stemmed from several defendants lodging a federal lawsuit arguing that the bail practices in Harris County were unconstitutional. The county settled the lawsuit in 2019 with the arrival of Democratic judges and a federal jurist issued a landmark opinion, prompting the O’Donnell consent decree and independent monitoring group to issue reports on the effects.

Misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan, who helped shaped the consent decree, said the Quattrone study, mirrors the progress noted in the mandated monitor reports. He commended the decision for having allowed some defendants in his courts and others to get out of jail within 24 hours of their arrest. The alternative was worse, he said.

“They lose their house, car, families, jobs and they come out of jail in a state of chaos,” said Jordan, who oversees the Criminal Court of Law No. 16. “They have to find a way to get back on their feet and make a living.”

If the reforms are working in Harris County — one of the most populous counties in the U.S. — they can be implemented elsewhere, the judge said.

[…]

A report issued in March by Brandon Garrett, a professor for Duke University’s School of Law tasked with overseeing the decree oversight, found that repeat offenders, those arrested for misdemeanor offenses, “remained largely stable in recent years.” The same study also found that, from 2015 to 2019, convictions declined and the number of dismissals and acquittals doubled.

The fifth report from Garrett’s team is slated to be released Saturday.

You can see the UPenn report here. Brandon Garrett has been issuing reports as the overseer for the past two years. We’ve had two years of data on this now, and the findings are clear. I suppose it could change tomorrow, but unless that happens there’s just no reason take the critics of misdemeanor bail reform seriously. Bloomberg News has more.

We keep on building homes in the floodplains

It’s how we roll.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston region with a deluge of rain, one of the places where the water escaped its bounds was near a Spring Branch floodway known as Brickhouse Gully, satellite data shows. There, it filled a golf course, which federal maps indicated had a high risk of flooding.

Today, that golf course has been turned into a 115-acre master-planned community built on newly created hills above its neighbors. A series of man-made lakes double as detention ponds, meant to prevent heavy rains that previously had pooled onto the golf course from impacting neighbors or those living downstream.

The story of how it was built encapsulates the tensions between those seeking to build more safely in the floodplains and those who believe such practices will not protect against the heavier rains predicted in the future — and who would prefer such land to remain undeveloped to allow stormwaters room to flow.

Four months before Harvey made landfall, the Arizona-based homebuilder Meritage Homes announced it planned to build roughly 800 single-family homes on what had been the Pine Crest golf course. The master-planned community would be named Spring Brook Village.

One out of every seven residential building permits issued in Houston since Harvey were located in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2009 Flood Insurance Rate Maps. While some were for pre-existing, flood-damaged homes that homeowners had decided to rebuild, many were for new homes that have put an increasing number of people in areas predisposed to flood. One of the highest concentrations of such permits was in Spring Brook Village.

After both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Harvey, standards for building in floodplains were tightened. Homes are now required to be built higher and with more detention. Meritage Homes, which said no one was available for comment, was building to the updated standards. But it also had done something else — started the process of having the floodmap changed.

Since Harvey, a sweeping federal floodmap update called Atlas-14 has been underway. Anticipated to be released this fall, it will look at rainfall data up to and including Hurricane Harvey. An early analysis indicated that the size of Harris County’s floodplains would grow because the expected rainfall in a flood event had been revised upward.

But a number of small, manual changes to floodplain maps have been taking place. Developers can submit applications to the Harris County Flood Control District and FEMA arguing that the flood designation for their communities should be changed, often because of flood mitigation steps taken. Until floodmaps are updated to reflect new rainfall averages, these one-off revisions have had the opposite effect: On paper, the county’s floodplains have been shrinking.

The changes often mean that homeowners in the area will not be required by their lenders to purchase flood insurance — which makes buying a home in the new community more affordable but puts homeowners who opt out of the expense at risk if the area does flood.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s a long story, part of the Chron’s ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s five-year mark, so go read the rest. And maybe double-check the flood map your home is in.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.