The race for the 351st District Court has Republican incumbent Judge Mark Kent Ellis facing Democratic candidate and defense attorney Mekisha Walker Murray. In this instance, my personal knowledge of Judge Ellis is only in passing, but Mekisha is a former prosecutor and a personal friend of mine.
Judge Ellis is an 8-year veteran of the District Attorney's Office, which he followed with 3 years of private practice. He has been on the bench since 1997. He has handled numerous death penalty Capital Murder trials and brings to the table eleven years of experience on the Bench. He is known as a very capable and intelligent judge who truly loves the law.
If anything, it could be said he might actually love the law a bit too much, as he is well known for spending upwards of about four hours during his portion of voir dire educating the jury panel on the "ins and outs" of how criminal law works. Now, this is often times rather aggravating to the prosecutors and defense attorneys (who are already quite familiar with the law), but Judge Ellis regularly gets compliments and thanks from the jurors who listen to his lecture. I don't think that anyone could make an argument that Judge Ellis is cutting any corners when it comes to ensuring well-educated jurors will end up on juries in his court.
In addition to his regular duties in the 351st, Judge Ellis is a former-member of the STAR Court judges dealing with defendants with substance abusers. In 2006, however, he switched from working in the STAR Court to being one of two judges supervising the Harris County Mental Health Court, which is a specialized court dealing with Defendants suffering from mental health issues.
I think that both prosecutors and defense attorneys alike can agree that dealing with mental health issues in the criminal court system is a complex and often troubling prospect. Everyone agrees that the criminal justice system and the way it is currently set up is ill-equipped to deal with persons accused of crimes who also suffer from legitimate mental illness. There is a line that must be walked that balances fairness to people who don't fully grasp the consequences of their actions and still takes into account the safety of the general public.
It's not an easy task, but it is one that Judge Ellis has volunteered his time to help work through.
Mekisha Murray, as I mentioned before, is a former prosecutor and current defense attorney. I like Mekisha and I think she has a brilliant legal mind and is an extremely hard worker.
When she was in the Justice of the Peace Division, Mekisha was known for doing legal research on Class C violations and case law regarding the traffic code. She was known for being an extremely intense prosecutor who worked very hard on her cases, often very late into the night. She served at the D.A.'s Office for somewhere around five or six years, I believe, before leaving as a Felony Two.
For those of you not familiar with the Office, the position of Felony Two is one of the most difficult positions in the Office. A Felony Two carries an enormous case load of serious felony trials ranging from high amounts of narcotics to Aggravated Robberies to Aggravated Sexual Assaults to Murders. Pretty much the only case that a Felony Two is not considered qualified to try is a Capital Murder case. A prosecutor will spend anywhere between four to five years in the position of Felony Two before being considered for promotion to Felony Chief. If the prosecutor has been able to survive those years of being a Felony Two, they can pretty much handle anything.
Mekisha left the Office fairly early on into her tenure as a Felony Two and didn't rise to the level of Felony Chief.
I don't say this to disparage Mekisha, because I think that at some point she will gather the credentials to be a good candidate for Judge. But as it stands now, she has been attorney for slightly less than six years. There's something to be said for experience, and she is still in the process of acquiring it at this point. I, myself, have only been a lawyer for almost ten years now, and I don't consider myself qualified to be a judge at this point based on my years of experience. I have a hard time thinking that Mekisha is quite there yet, either.
In the case of Judge Ellis, you are dealing with a long-standing judge who, not only has experience, but also is trying to make a difference in the community. His work with both the STAR Court and now the Mental Health courts clearly illustrate that it would be in the public's best interest to keep Judge Ellis on the bench.