In 2016, Harris County had a massive Democratic sweep, and Dem straight ticket voting outpaced Republican voters by 71,000 votes (8 percentage points). All of the Republican judges lost their benches by margins ranging from roughly 24,000 votes to 100,000.
Gubernatorial years have usually favored the Republicans in Harris County, Texas. In 2014, all of the Republican candidates for Judge won their benches. The straight-ticket voting difference favored the Republicans by 44,000 votes. In 2010, the Republicans won straight-ticket by 50,000. In recent history, a Republican holding a bench, running on the Gubernatorial cycle, seemingly had fantastic job security. Whether or not that continues to hold true is up for debate. Beto O'Rourke's campaign against Ted Cruz is far more mobilizing for Dems than Wendy Davis's campaign against Greg Abbott in 2014. President Trump is also keeping Dems angry and motivated on a daily basis.
I'm genuinely curious to see what happens in November. This will be the last statewide election that voters have the ability to straight-ticket vote. I'm REALLY curious to see what happens in 2020. I'm hopeful (although not entirely optimistic) that after this election, the straight-ticket voting phenomenon won't be as destructive on our Criminal Justice elections.
As I've previously written, there are great candidates on both sides in this election -- many of whom are personal friends of mine (and in some cases, friends of each other.) So, I'm considering this write up more of a voter guide than an endorsement list.
Here's the rundown.
180th District Court -- Republican Judge Catherine Evans (I) vs. Democrat Desean Jones
I've known Judge Evans since she was a Baby Prosecutor and I knew that she would do a great job as judge when she was first appointed to the Bench in 2013. She hasn't disappointed. I've handled quite a few cases in her court and many of those have been complicated and serious. In each of those cases, I've seen Judge Evans strive to make sure that Defendant's in her court are treated fairly and equally. In trial, she follows the law and calls "balls and strikes" without preference toward either side. In those instances where she's called upon to pass sentence on a Defendant, she carefully considers all of the evidence before making a ruling. Just this week, I wrapped up an exceedingly difficult trial with Judge Evans and she was fantastic to try it in front of. I would gladly try a case in front of her in the future.
I've also known Desean Jones for years, although I don't know him nearly as well as I know Judge Evans. I had the opportunity to get to know him and talk to him when he first started practicing criminal law. He is an Army veteran and reservist, a class act, and someone that I'm proud to call my friend. When I first met Desean, several years ago, he was relatively new to his practice and wanted to learn about Criminal Law. He's a good man, and as noted in the Houston Chronicle's write up on the race, he wants to make changes to injustices in the System itself.
NOTE: The Chronicle, in its rating system, gave Evans four stars and gave Jones three. I think the bottom line in this race is that Jones would make a good judge, but Evans already is a good judge.
182nd District Court -- Republican Jesse McClure vs. Democrat Danny Lacayo
With longtime Judge Jeanine Barr retiring from the bench, the 182nd is up for grabs. Republican McClure is a prosecutor from the Texas Department of Insurance who is currently assigned to the Harris County District Attorney's Office. I've handled a case or two with him over the past couple of years and I truly enjoy working with him. He's fair, reasonable and honest. He's a good guy and he would make a good judge.
Democrat Lacayo is a former prosecutor and longtime attorney for the Harris County Public Defender's Office. I've known Danny forever, and I consider him to be a dear friend. He's a good man and he is very well-liked and respected by his colleagues at the CJC. Some of you may recall that earlier this year, Lacayo was sucker punched by one of his clients in the jail holdover. To his credit, it didn't slow him down at all. He was back, zealously defending indigent clients with the same level of dedication that he has always exhibited.
NOTE: The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Lacayo but labeled this race as a "dead heat," and gave both candidates a 3.5 star rating. Quite frankly, I think they were both deserving of 4 stars, but I do agree with the assessment that voters can't go wrong in this race.
183rd District Court -- Republican Judge Vanessa Velasquez (I) vs. Democrat Chuck Silverman
As most readers of this blog know, few things tick me off as much as candidates running for criminal benches that have no experience in criminal law. Sadly, there is nothing that prohibits a completely unqualified candidate from seeking an office regardless of whether or not they have the slightest clue about what he or she is doing. Unfortunately, that is what we have in Democratic candidate Chuck Silverman, a civil attorney who is, yet again, running for a criminal bench.
In 2014, Silverman ran against 208th District Judge Denise Collins and was soundly defeated. As I said back then, "The audacity of a non-criminal attorney even seeking a bench where he has no experience is offensive." I still find the idea offensive that a lawyer, practicing in a civil arena but unable get elected to a civil bench, would bring his show to the criminal justice world and attempt to set up shop. While civil cases deal with money, criminal cases deal with human lives. It is no place for amateurs and it is no place for Silverman.
By stark contrast, Judge Velasquez is an enormously well-respected judge who has spent her entire career in the Criminal Justice arena. She was a longtime prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney's Office before being appointed to the 183rd District Court. I have an enormous amount of respect for Judge Velasquez as someone who has worked hard to get where she is today. She is one of the toughest, yet most compassionate judges on the bench. She is not afraid to dress down the toughest hard case defendants who appear before her (I've seen her make hard-core gang members cry). But she also has the courage to work with some of those hard-core defendants if they are sincere about making changes in their lives. She's a phenomenal judge and she makes a positive difference in a lot of lives.
NOTE: The Chronicle endorsed Judge Velasquez with a 3.5 star rating, knocking her slightly for her strict tardiness policies. I feel that knock was misplaced -- Judge Velasquez expects people charged in her court to treat those charges as the most serious thing going on their lives. Although some judges revoke bonds on late defendants just for the sake of getting them back in custody, Judge Velasquez has always done it to make sure that Defendants realize how serious she is. Defendants that don't take charges seriously won't fare well in any felony court.
The Chronicle bizarrely gave Silverman a 2 star rating, which was about 2 more stars than he should have had. He doesn't have any criminal experience. Under this theory, the Chronicle should give me a 2 star rating as a brain surgeon. In 2014, Judge Velasquez did not draw an opponent. That was because no one from either Party wanted to challenge a judge who does so much for the System.
If Chuck Silverman knew anything about criminal law, he wouldn't have run against her, either.
184th District Court -- Republican Renee Magee vs. Democrat Abigail Anastasio
With the retirement of incumbent Republican Judge Jan Krocker, the race for the 184th District Court is also wide open. Former-337th District Court Judge Renee Magee is the Republican candidate and political newcomer, defense attorney Abigail Anastasio is running as the Democrat.
In the 2016 election, I upset some people when I endorsed Judge Herb Ritchie over then-Judge Magee for the 337th. My concerns then were that Judge Magee had not quite gotten past her role as prosecutor after four years on the Bench. Although my intent was not to hurt anyone's feelings, I felt that I needed to share my experience trying cases in front of her. I'm not sure what Renee has been doing since leaving the Bench. I don't believe that she has been doing defense work and I know she hasn't gone back to prosecuting. So, basically, I don't know what to add to what I last wrote.
I've known Abigail Anastasio since she was a young prosecutor and I even tried a case against her back in the day. As noted by the write up in the Chronicle, she has less experience than Magee, but she's got a great heart. Since leaving the District Attorney's Office, she has become a very active member of the Defense Bar who defends her clients wholeheartedly.
NOTE: The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Magee with a 3.5 star rating, with Anastasio a close second with 3 stars. The Chronicle noted that they based the decision on Magee's years of experience compared to those of Anastasio's.
185th District Court -- Republican Stacey Bond vs. Democrat Jason Luong
With longtime 185th District Court Judge Susan Brown retiring from the Bench and taking over as the Presiding Judge of the 11th Administrative Judicial District, this race is between former-176th District Court Judge Stacey Bond and former-prosecutor-current-defense attorney Jason Luong. Like many of the other races, the race is between two great candidates and I consider them both friends.
Judge Bond won election to the 176th in 2012 and served one term before falling victim to the Democratic sweep of 2016. During her tenure, she was highly regarded by both the prosecution and the defense as a fair judge who did not play favorites with either side. She was smart, compassionate and brave. During her tenure, she made a finding of prosecutorial misconduct on a high profile trial, which subsequently barred retrial. It was a rare move that angered many prosecutors, but it was a brave call that earned her the respect of the Defense Bar. As noted in the Chronicle write up on this race, Judge Bond was the judge presiding over the now-infamous sexual assault trial that led to the incarceration of "Jenny," the mentally ill complainant. Although she was admonished for her part in it, she was found to be remorseful about what occurred. No one that knows Judge Bond would believe that she would ever have done anything to intentionally harm "Jenny." She's too good of a judge and a person for that.
Jason Luong is also a great candidate for judge. He's smart, funny, and cares about what happens within the Criminal Justice System. He's a former prosecutor who has been doing criminal defense for some time now and he is a very active member of the Defense Bar. He would make a very good judge.
NOTE: The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Jason Luong with 4 stars to Bond's 3 stars. Without taking anything away from Jason, I think the editorial board is encouraging voters to regard Bond too harshly because of the "Jenny" situation. She was an outstanding judge during her tenure in the176th and that one issue doesn't erase that. Both candidates are completely worthy of your vote.
208th District Court -- Republican Judge Denise Collins (I) vs. Democrat Greg Glass
I found it pretty amusing to read the Chronicle's write up of the contest for the 208th as one of the least acrimonious political campaigns I've ever seen:
When we asked Glass why voters should support him over Collins, the experienced practitioner offered a short and insightful response: "Good question."This race isn't that hotly contested because the two candidates are both really nice people who are well-liked within the Criminal Justice arena. I don't know Judge Collins as well as I know some other judges on the Bench, but she has always been very nice to me. On those cases where I have appeared before her, Judge Collins has always been very invested in all of the cases before her and she genuinely cares about what happens to all of the parties involved.
I've known Greg Glass since I was a young prosecutor. He is also a class act and I think he would make a good judge, too. He's a very nice man who has been doing criminal defense since long before I showed up in Houston. I have nothing negative to say about him.
NOTE: The Chronicle graded both candidates with 3 stars, but gave the endorsement to Judge Collins, explaining "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Either choice would be a good one.
209th District Court -- Republican Judge Michael McSpadden (I) vs. Democrat Brian Warren
This race is a tough one to write about for me because my first real introduction to Harris County came as an academic intern to the D.A.'s Office in Judge McSpadden's court. Judge McSpadden could not have been kinder and I really feel that I learned so much about how to handle myself as a prosecutor and later, a defense attorney because of that experience.
That being said, Democratic candidate Brian Warren is like a younger brother to me. We served in the 174th District Court together, where we became good friends. He sat with me on the first case I ever tried as a defense attorney. I consider him and his wife, Katie, to be family friends. He is one of those people that is the first to volunteer to help anyone at any time whenever possible. He is a good lawyer who would be a compassionate judge would an excellent demeanor. He's a good man and I'm proud to call him my friend.
The race for the 209th is very much the picture of the New versus the Old. Judge McSpadden is the longest serving Judge on the Bench, and even after practicing for almost 20 years, I still feel a small level of intimidation just stepping into his courtroom. He is extremely formal which reclects the high level of seriousness and respect he holds for the Law and the Criminal Justice System. He is the very definition of the term Old School. Despite that, he was progressive in his views on the war on drugs long before being progressive was cool. For as long as I can remember serving in his court, he freely spoke freely about his disdain for the D.A.'s Office filing crack pipe residue cases. He has never been shy about speaking his mind. Unfortunately, that got Judge McSpadden in some hot water with some controversial comments he made regarding the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year.
Brian Warren, by contrast, is extremely relaxed and outgoing. He's far less formal than McSpadden and is much more open-minded to different ideas of how to handle cases. If I had to guess, he would have a slightly more relaxed cell phone policy in court, if elected.
NOTE: The Chronicle gave Warren the endorsement with 4 stars to McSpadden's 2. Unsurprisingly, they took McSpadden to task for his earlier statements.
228th District Court -- Republican Judge Marc Carter (I) vs. Democrat Frank Aguilar
There are few people that I've met in life, let alone the courthouse, that I think more highly of than Judge Marc Carter. In addition to being a family man, an Army veteran, and an Award-Winning Judge, he's also one of the nicest human beings that I've ever met. Judge Carter's work with Veterans' Court has served as a model for other Veterans' Courts across the country and his compassion as a judge has earned him the respect and admiration of both the Defense Bar and the prosecution. That's the reason that in years past, Judge Carter hasn't drawn an opponent.
I don't have anything negative to say about Democratic candidate Frank Aguilar other than wishing that he wasn't running against Judge Carter. I knew Aguilar when he was a P.C. magistrate during my tenure at the D.A.'s Office. He's a nice man, but he doesn't approach the level of experience, energy, kindness, and commitment that Judge Carter shows on a daily basis.
The race for the 228th absolutely exemplifies why partisan politics have no place in the Criminal Justice arena. The fact that Judge Carter's job is in jeopardy based on Party affiliation is a travesty. The reality is that even if Aguilar wasn't running against Carter, the Democratic Party would have found somebody else to challenge him. Shame on them for that. Other than partisan politics, there is no reason for anyone other than Judge Carter to be on that Bench,
NOTE: The Chronicle rightfully endorsed Judge Carter with 5 stars (one of only 5 candidates to receive such a high rating and one of only two judges). Aguilar, by contrast, only received 1 star, which was apparently the minimum allowed, since he didn't bother to show up to be interviewed by the editorial board.
230th District Court -- Republican Judge Brad Hart (I) vs. Democrat Chris Morton
It was the race for the 230th District Court that made me first realize that I wouldn't be making picks this year. Both candidates are too close of friends of mine to make a choice.
Incumbent Judge Brad Hart was my first Chief at the District Attorney's Office and throughout my career there, he was somebody that I often turned to for advice -- both personal and professional. He was a calm and rational voice of wisdom that was often a stark contrast to my personality. He's a leader with integrity that I admire. Before he was a judge, I knew it was a role he was born for, which is something that I've said time and time again. I was honored to speak at his investiture.
Since serving on the bench, Judge Hart hasn't disappointed. He runs a great court and he is widely respected as a well-liked and fair judge. He's also very active in keeping everyone at the courthouse informed of what goes on behind the scenes. He worked tirelessly during Hurricane Harvey to keep everything up and running, and to keep us all informed. He still serves as a liaison in letting us know what progress (if any) is being made to get the Criminal Justice world back to normal. In short, he is like the wiser, older brother I never had and he is an excellent judge.
The reason this race is difficult for me is that Chris Morton is also a good friend. Our kids went to pre-school together. We go to lunch on a semi-regular basis. He's come over to my house to grab a beer and watch football a time or two. He's a good lawyer who served as both a prosecutor and as a defense attorney. He also served in the military. When he told me that he was going to run for judge, I was very excited, because I knew that Chris Morton would make an excellent judge. I initially thought he was going to run against Jan Krocker for the 184th, and I was very excited about that prospect.
When, due to some Party decisions made by the Democrats, he switched to running for the 230th, I think I immediately had an ulcer. Two people that I think very highly of were running against each other, and I didn't know what to say about it. So, if you want to blame me for wimping out on not giving any "endorsements" this season (for what they are worth), blame this race in particular. I sincerely wish there was a different way this election cycle shook out and they both could be judges.
NOTE: The Chronicle seems to have similar feelings, ranking both candidates with 3.5 stars and awarding the endorsement to Judge Hart.
232nd District Court -- Republican Judge Kristin Guiney (I) vs. Democrat Josh Hill
Other than Judge Marc Carter, the only judge to receive a 5 star rating from the Houston Chronicle was 232nd Judge Kristin Guiney. Her opponent, Democrat Josh Hill was close behind with a 4.5 star rating, which was higher than most other candidates.
Both candidates are friends of mine, and, as noted in the Chronicle editorial, friends of each other. Although Hill has not sought elected office before, Guiney was elected to the 179th District Court in 2012, but fell victim to the Democratic Sweep of 2016. She was appointed to the 232nd last year when former 232nd Judge Mary Lou Keel was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals. In both the 179th and the 232nd, Judge Guiney won very high marks from prosecutors and defense attorneys alike for being approachable, reasonable, and often creative in working to find just resolutions to the issues of her court. She continues to work on solutions to overarching problems within the Criminal Justice System. I found it interesting that the Chronicle noted that she should run for Congress. I've had similar thoughts about Judge Guiney.
Josh Hill is also a great lawyer and a great guy. His father, Wayne Hill, is also a longtime criminal defense attorney and the two work together, along with Josh's sister, Taryn Braun. They are a great family and they have a long history in the Harris County Criminal Justice world. Prior to becoming a defense attorney, Josh was a prosecutor with the D.A.'s Office. He handles both trial cases and appellate cases, which would make him a good judge, as well.
NOTE: As noted above, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Judge Guiney with 5 stars, with Hill close behind with 4.5 stars. As in several other of the races, this race has someone who would make a great judge running against someone who already is one.
248th District Court -- Republican Judge Katherine Cabaniss (I) vs. Democrat Hilary Unger
Incumbent Republican Judge Katherine Cabaniss is defending the 248th bench against Democratic challenger Hilary Unger.
In the interest of full disclosure, Judge Cabaniss was my Chief during my time in the 174th and I consider her a family friend. If I consider Judge Brad Hart to be like a big brother, Judge Cabaniss was kind of like a big sister during my time at the D.A.'s Office. She's also a family friend that I think the world of. Judge Cabaniss, as most people know, was a longtime prosecutor at the D.A.'s Office, who left as a District Court Chief. Upon leaving the D.A.'s Office, she took over as head of CrimeStoppers for several years, before being appointed to the 248th.
I know Hilary Unger, but not nearly as well I know Judge Cabaniss. Unger is a respected and insightful defense attorney who works very hard for her clients. She is active in the Harris County Criminal Lawyer's Association She has always been very nice to me and I have no doubt that she would also make a great judge.
NOTE: The Chronicle endorsed Judge Cabaniss with a 4 star rating, while giving Unger a 3.5 star rating.
262nd District Court -- Republican Tammy Thomas vs. Democrat Lori Chambers Gray
With the retirement of Judge Denise Bradley, the race for the 262nd features political newcomer (and former Division Chief Prosecutor), Tammy Thomas as the Republican candidate and defense attorney Lori Gray as the Democrat.
I'm a little biased in this one, because not only is Thomas from my hometown of Bryan, she also was my Chief in the 179th District Court. Tammy was a career prosecutor who retired as a Division Chief in Special Crimes at the beginning of the Ogg Administration. She was a great prosecutor and a phenomenal trial lawyer. She was also a very reasonable prosecutor to deal with when it came to non-violent offenses. I loved working for Tammy because she never pulled any punches when describing what she was thinking. I love it that she told the Chronicle editorial board that she would be biased against bad attorneys. Amen to that.
I don't have anything against Lori Chambers Gray, but I don't really know her except in passing. She seems to run for office quite a bit, but I don't know that I've ever seen her in trial. I'm sure she's a nice person, but she'd be hard pressed to be more dynamic candidate that Thomas.
NOTE: The Chronicle gave their endorsement to Thomas with a 3.5 star rating, while giving Chambers 2 stars.
263rd District Court -- Republican Charles Johnson vs. Democrat Amy Martin
With the retirement of Judge Jim Wallace from the 263rd District Court bench, this is also a wide-open race with Republican defense attorney Charles Johnson running against Democratic candidate Amy Martin, who is both a trial and appellate attorney who has been in practice for 15 years.
I've known Charles for years, and on a personal level, I like him very much. He's always gone out of his way to be nice to me. That being said, a recent article in the Houston Chronicle is extremely concerning about his ability to be a judge. In an article this morning, the Chronicle even went so far as to say he was one of the five worst candidates on the ballot this November. Although I don't agree that Charles is a bad person, I do think that running for a Bench wasn't the best idea for him.
By contrast, I don't know Amy Martin very well, but I do know her reputation as an excellent and dedicated attorney. She is completely free of the scandals that unfortunately follow Johnson, and is always willing to help other attorneys (including me!) when they need legal advice on unusual issues that could spring up on appeal. In short, Amy Martin is an outstanding candidate for judge.
NOTE: Unsurprisingly, the Chronicle endorsed Martin with a 3.5 star rating. Johnson scored the only 1 star.
313th District Court (Juvenile) -- Republican Glenn Devlin (I) vs. Democrat Natalia Oakes
As I usually note during election time, I don't do much juvenile law, so I'm a little outside of my depth when it comes to making endorsements in the three District Courts that handle juvenile cases. My experience in juvenile largely consisted of a three-month stint in 1999 when I was assigned to the Division for the D.A.'s Office.
I do know all of the sitting Juvenile judges, however. I met Judge Devlin during that 1999 stint, and I've always liked him. He's a larger than life personality who has always been very friendly and outgoing. In one of my (very) few appearances in Juvenile Court as a defense attorney, I appeared in front of him, and he was great. I was disappointed to read the article in this morning's Houston Chronicle which pointed out that he (along with 314th District Court Judge John Phillips) were responsible for sending 20% of the juveniles in TYC to TYC. That's an alarming statistic.
I don't believe that I've ever met his Democratic opponent Natalia Oakes, so I'm heavily reliant upon the Chronicle for any information that I have about her. The Chronicle does not appear to be overly enthusiastic about her, lamenting that she did not have too many concrete plans for improving the Juvenile Justice System.
NOTE: The Chronicle gives the endorsement to Oakes with a 3 star rating, as compared to Devlin's 2 stars. Given the findings from today's article and Devlin's refusal to meet with the Editorial Board, this isn't surprising.
314th District Court (Juvenile) -- Republican John Phillips (I) vs. Democrat Michelle Moore
Like with Judge Devlin, I've known Judge Phillips from my brief stint in Juvie in 1999, when he was a defense attorney who regularly practiced in the 313th under then-Judge Pat Shelton. He was always nice to me and we often stop to talk whenever we see each other walking to court in the mornings. I like him, but I haven't dealt with him in a professional capacity in almost 20 years.
As with Judge Devlin, I was disappointed to see his name in the article in this morning's Houston Chronicle about the juvenile respondents sent to TYC. Also, as with the race for the 313th, I don't know anything about the Democratic challenger, other than what I read in the Chronicle.
According to the Chronicle, Moore is a Harris County Attorney who handles CPS cases. She is described as "well-qualified" and seems to have a very detailed plan for improving the court.
NOTE: The Chronicle gives the endorsement to Moore with 3.5 star rating, compared to Phillips' 2 stars. Phillips also refused to meet with the Editorial Board.
315th District Court (Juvenile) -- Republican Mike Schneider (I) vs. Democrat Leah Shapiro
The only incumbent Juvenile judge to receive the Chronicle's endorsement is 315th District Court Judge Mike Schneider. Although I've never appeared before Judge Schneider, I know that he enjoys a very good reputation with those who do juvenile work. While Devlin and Phillips have always had their critics, most people that I know have generally been very complimentary of Judge Schneider. I've met Judge Schneider on several occasions outside of the courtroom, and he does seem to be a very nice guy.
His Democratic opponent, Leah Shapiro, is a very good friend of mine, and I think the world of her. She is a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney and a longtime member of the Public Defender's Office. She is smart, funny, and down-to-earth. She would make a fantastic judge. It was actually Shapiro's candidacy that helped me put this year's election in perspective. When asked why she was running against the highly-regarded Schneider, she pointed out that if she didn't, a less qualified candidate could easily take her place on the Democratic ticket. It was a no brainer that the citizens of Harris County benefitted by having good candidates on both sides of the ballot. She couldn't have been more correct about that.
NOTE: As noted above, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Judge Schneider with a 4 star rating, to Shapiro's 3.5 stars. I would argue that both are equally qualified for the job. Either way, it is a win-win scenario for the citizens of Harris County.
FINAL THOUGHTS: As I've said before, whatever happens on Election Day will be largely governed by National politics and the race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. In the event of a close race, getting the vote out matters tremendously. Make sure your family and friends get out and vote too. Tell them your thoughts and opinions on the candidates. Make lists with your recommendations and send them to everyone you know that votes in Harris County. As a general rule, voters don't really pay attention to the Criminal Justice races. Only we can change that.
No matter who you vote for, just make sure you get out and vote.