Monday, October 22, 2018

The 2018 County Court at Law Races

For those unfamiliar with the Criminal Justice System, the County Courts handle Misdemeanor cases such as Driving While Intoxicated, smaller thefts, Assaults that don't involve weapons or serious bodily injuries, and Possession of Marijuana (if the D.A. filed those kinds of cases).  As most of you already know, there are sixteen Criminal County Courts at Law in Harris County and fifteen of those are on the ballot in November.  The one exception is County Court at Law # 16, which is a relatively new Court, which comes up for election during the Presidential election cycle.  County Court at Law # 16 also has the distinction of being the only one of the County Courts currently held by a Democrat (Judge Darrell Jordan).  All fifteen of the Courts on the ballot in November are held by Republicans.

Most of the judges who sit on County Court benches have been there for many years -- several of them since before I came to Harris County.  Almost all of the judges are former prosecutors from the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

Many of the current sitting judges have decided to retire rather than run again.  Personally, I think that there are three main factors that are influencing the Judicial Exodus:  1) terrible conditions after Hurricane Harvey, 2) an uncertain outlook for Republicans in November, and 3) a controversial Federal lawsuit regarding bail bonds.

As an amusing sidenote, apparently, the Houston Chronicle decided not to endorse any of the judges involved in the bond lawsuit.  I guess that's fine, but with the paper's fancy new rating system, that led to them giving higher ratings to some candidates and then endorsing that same candidate's opponent.  That's kind of like saying "sure, four is a higher number than three, but for the purposes of this article, we are just going to pretend that it isn't."  It's Chronicle Math.


With that for a backdrop, here are your candidates for the County Court Benches.

County Court at Law # 1 -- Republican Judge Paula Goodhart (I) vs. Democrat Alex Salgado
The first victim of Chronicle Math is Incumbent Republican Judge Paula Goodhart, who despite getting a 3.5 star rating as compared to challenger Alex Salgado's 3 stars, did not get the mildly coveted Chronicle endorsement.

I've known Judge Goodhart since she was at the Harris County District Attorney's Office, where she was a highly respected Chief and trial lawyer.  She later translated that into becoming a highly respected County Court Judge, where she has served for multiple terms now.  I haven't had too many cases in her court, but when I have, she has been polite, efficient, and fair.  She's a really good judge that is liked by both the prosecution and the defense.  As noted in the Chronicle non-endorsement, Judge Goodhart is also a leading force in SOBER Court, as well leading the effort to get things back to semi-normal after Hurricane Harvey.

I don't personally know Democrat Alex Salgado, but I've heard very nice things about him.  People that I know who practice more frequently in Fort Bend County know him from the Ft. Bend District Attorney's Office, where he is also well-liked and respected.  I'm sure that he would make a fine judge, as well.  As noted by the non-endorsement, he just doesn't have the amount of experience that Judge Goodhart does.

County Court at Law # 2 -- Republican Judge Bill Harmon (I) vs. Democrat Ronnisha Bowman
The second victim of Chronicle Math is Incumbent Republican Judge Bill Harmon, who received a 2.5-star rating, as opposed to his opponent, Democratic challenger Ronnisha Bowman's 2 stars.  In this case, however, the mathmagicians at the Chronicle called a surprising "No Endorsement" between the two candidates.  So, under this math equation, I guess 2 = 2.5 = 0?  I have to admit, I'm really kind of starting to enjoy Chronicle Math.  There are just no wrong answers.

But, I digress.  So, apparently, the fact that candidate Bowman has only tried six cases (which the Chronicle bizarrely refers to as "presiding over") in her short career.  Therefore, they cannot, in good conscience, endorse her.  So, I guess that means that they've got to go with the only other person in the race, right?  Nope.  That would make them go back on their word of not endorsing judges involved in the lawsuit.

I've known Judge Harmon since I was a baby prosecutor and I like him a lot.  However, he is pretty stubborn when it comes to how he handles cases, especially DWI cases.  He is known for being harsher on punishment and driver's license suspensions.  However, as noted by the Chronicle, he does absolutely know what he's doing.  They are also correct that having tried (not presided over) six trials does not give an attorney enough experience to be a judge.

County Court at Law # 3 -- Republican Judge Natalie Fleming (I) vs. Democrat Erica Hughes
Incumbent Judge Natalie Fleming is seeking re-election to the Bench that she has held since 2010.  I've had the opportunity to appear in front of Judge Fleming on several cases and she is an outstanding judge.  She is knowledgeable in the law and runs a friendly and efficient courtroom.  I would gladly appear in front of her any day.

Although I don't believe that I know Democratic challenger Erica Hughes, personally, she does have a very impressive resume in the Chronicle.  Unlike some other challengers, she does have experience in criminal law, as well as military experience in the National Guard with the JAG Corps.  The Chronicle points out that she would have a learning curve since JAG doesn't follow the Texas Penal Code.  I find this ironic since the Chronicle apparently does not follow Math.  If Hughes is doing criminal law in Texas and she has JAG trial experience, I'm sure she would do just fine.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Hughes with 3 stars, although it gave Judge Fleming 4 stars.  It seems to me that both candidates are both well-qualified to serve.

County Court at Law # 4 -- Republican Judge John Clinton (I) vs. Democrat Shannon Baldwin
Incumbent Judge and former-Houston Police Officer John Clinton is running for re-election against longtime defense attorney Shannon Baldwin.  I did not know Judge Clinton before he took the Bench in Court Four in 2010, but I've had the opportunity to appear before him several times over the past eight years and found it to be a very good experience.  He is very solution oriented and works with all of the parties in resolving the cases in a fair and equitable solution.  I agree with the Chronicle's assessment that he is a very caring judge.

Democratic candidate Shannon Baldwin is a friend of mine who devotes her practice to Criminal Law.  She's been doing it for quite some time now (20 years!) and would make a fantastic judge.  That, coupled with her military experience as an officer in the National Guard, make her candidacy the Real Deal.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Baldwin with 3.5 stars, compared to Judge Clinton's 4 stars.  I would have given Baldwin 4 stars, as well.

County Court at Law # 5 --  Republican Xavier Alfaro vs. Democrat David Fleischer
With longtime Incumbent Republican Judge Margaret Harris not seeking re-election, this race is the first of several wide-open contests in the Misdemeanor Courts.  Republican challenger Xavier Alfaro is a former prosecutor and current defense attorney who previously ran for the 178th District Court in 2016.  His Democratic opponent is longtime defense attorney David Fleischer.

Both Alfaro and Fleischer are friends of mine and both would make great judges.  While it is true that Alfaro has had the benefit of previously serving as a prosecutor (while Fleischer has not), I don't think that should be counted as a mark against Fleischer.  There are plenty of judges on the Bench in Harris County who only served as prosecutors.

Both Alfaro and Fleischer are dedicated lawyers who practice on a daily basis in defense of their clients.  Alfaro is a bit more laid-back while Fleischer is a bit more intense, with an overarching concern about the bigger issues facing the Criminal Justice System.

The Houston Chronicle gave the endorsement to Alfaro, with a 3.5-star rating, as compared to Fleischer's 3 stars.  I found the paper's write-up on the race to be a little confusing.  Personally, I would have graded them both as equals.

County Court at Law # 6 -- Republican Linda Garcia vs. Democrat Kelley Andrews
With longtime Incumbent Judge Larry Standley not seeking re-election, the race for County Court at Law # 6 is also an open race.  The Republican Candidate is Linda Garcia, who was previously appointed to County Court at Law #16 when the Court was first created.  She lost her bench in the Democratic Sweep of 2016 to Judge Darrell Jordan.  Andrews is a longtime defense attorney.  Both are friends of mine.

Garcia has a very impressive resume.  She is a former judge and prosecutor.  She also served on the Board of Pardons and Parole.  She's an extremely nice lady who was well-liked during her brief tenure on the Bench.  She also has a strong background in Appellate Law, which is a plus.

Kelley Andrews is a highly respected and well-liked defense attorney who has been zealously representing her clients for some time now.  She is a good attorney who works hard on her clients' behalf.  She is funny, diplomatic and talented.  The fact that the Chronicle gave her the same grade as a candidate with Garcia's resume is a testament to what a fantastic candidate she would be.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Garcia with a 3.5-star rating, although it gave Andrews the exact same rating.  I did laugh at the Chronicle's self-important declaration at the end of their endorsement:
We're giving the nod to Garcia on the express condition that she refuses to accept the status quo at the courthouse and becomes an agent for change.
What does that even mean?  In the event that Garcia wins the election and is not, in fact, "agent for change," the Chronicle will retract the endorsement?  Wouldn't that be a little late?  Who is writing this stuff for them?  They weren't like this in the District Court endorsements.  They seriously need to get over themselves.

County Court at Law # 7 -- Republican Judge Pam Derbyshire (I) vs. Democrat Andrew Wright
When I was a baby prosecutor back in 1999, the first court that I was ever assigned to was County Court at Law #7 with Judge Pam Derbyshire.  I tried my first cases in front of her and it was great.  She was great.  The staff was great.  Some of my favorite memories of my time as a prosecutor go back to those days when I didn't have a clue about what I was doing and I was trying cases in front of a very kind and very patient Judge Derbyshire. She is one of my very favorite people in the courthouse and I always love catching up with her every time I'm in the neighborhood of her court.

Her Democratic opponent, Andrew Wright, is a friend of mine, though, and (despite the fact that he routinely mocks me on Facebook every chance he gets) I think he'd make a pretty good judge, himself.   He is a hard-working attorney who is well-versed in the law and very dedicated to the job he does.  The majority of his practice is in the Misdemeanor Courts, where he is very much at home.  He strives to do a good job for his clients, even though he looks more like a member of an Allman Brothers Tribute Band than an attorney.  Wright is a good person who wants to help and wants to make things better in the Misdemeanor courts.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Wright with a 3-star rating despite the fact that they gave Judge Derbyshire a 4.5-star rating and praised her compassion and innovation from the Bench.  I wonder if, at any point, the Editorial Board started to realize that their steadfast refusal to endorse any of the incumbent judges was kind of making their recommendations look a little silly.

County Court at Law # 8 -- Republican Dan Simons vs. Democratic Socialist Franklin Bynum 
This is probably the most interesting race on the ballot this November because of the personalities involved.  As most courthouse regulars know, Republican challenger (former prosecutor and current defense attorney) Dan Simons defeated longtime incumbent Judge Jay Karahan in the primary after a very nasty battle.  His opponent is a longtime defense attorney, Franklin Bynum, who is running as a Democratic Socialist.  Simon's politics are extremely conservative.  Bynum couldn't be further to the Left.  They could not be more polarly opposite.

I've known Bynum since he was a (relatively) young defense attorney.  He's a friend that I bicker with quite a bit and, in fact, he was even my roommate for a brief amount of time.  I don't know Simons nearly as well as I know Bynum, but as I've previously written, he's always been nice to me.

As noted above, the philosophies of the two could not be more different.  Although I like Simons, I wasn't a big fan of the attack on Judge Karahan because Karahan performed a same-sex wedding.  I've got a big problem with the politics of exclusion.  That being said, it wouldn't surprise me if Bernie Sanders was considering giving Bynum a phone call and asking him to tone down the Liberalism just a smidge.  The Chronicle is very correct in describing Bynum as a "brilliant attorney who cares deeply for his clients."  The Chronicle is also correct in comparing his candidacy to that of former-Judge Kevin Fine.  If elected, Bynum would unabashedly start handling things quite differently than any other court in Harris County.  That's not a criticism.  That's just a prediction, and I would imagine he would wholeheartedly agree with it.

Unsurprisingly, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Bynum with a 3.5-star rating to Simons' 1.5 rating.

County Court at Law # 9 -- Republican John Wakefield vs. Democrat Toria Finch
With the retirement of Judge Analia Wilkerson, political newcomers John Wakefield and Toria Finch are seeking to replace her.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don't now Finch very well although we are always friendly when we see each other.  Wakefield and I, on the other hand, are good friends who go back to when he first started at the Office.  Not that I have anything negative to say about Finch.  I just know Wakefield far better.  I can speak to his qualifications based on personal experience, but I've got to rely on the Chronicle write-up for what I know about Finch.

Wakefield is a senior felony District Court Chief with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, where he has worked for the past 12 years.  He's a smart guy with a great sense of humor.  He's reasonable to deal with and he knows his cases.  He knows the law and he follows it.  He is compassionate on his cases and by no means a hard-core prosecutor.  He isn't afraid to do the right thing no matter what the circumstances.  In addition, Wakefield is a strong family man and a great friend.  He would make a great friend.  As noted in the Chronicle's selection, he is Board Certified in Criminal Law.

Finch has also been practicing criminal law for 12 years and worked in both the Misdemeanor and Felony Divisions of the Harris County District Attorney's Office.  I learned from the Chronicle editorial that she was Board Certified in Juvenile Law.

Both have impressive resumes, which led to the Chronicle endorsing both candidates with mutual 4 star ratings.

County Court at Law # 10 --Republican Judge Dan Spjut (I) vs. Democrat Lee Harper Wilson
In contrast to the other County Court at Law races on the ballot, I don't really know either of the candidates running for County Court at Law #10.  I've appeared once before Judge Spjut since he took the Bench and he was very nice.  That being said, I've heard nothing but positive reviews from prosecutors and defense attorneys who have appeared in front of him.   Per the Chronicle editorial, Judge Spjut is a retired Houston Police Officer who served for 27 years and practiced civil law for 14 years.  He has been on the Bench since 2014.

I don't believe that I have ever met Lee Harper Wilson and I didn't recognize him from the picture.  He does have an impressive resume, especially considering the fact that he is Board Certified in Criminal Law.  Even Judge Spjut noted that Wilson was a qualified opponent.

The Chronicle again applied their special brand of math by giving the endorsement to Wilson with a 3.5-star rating while giving a 4-star rating to Judge Spjut.

County Court at Law # 11 -- Republican Aaron Burdette vs. Democrat Sedrick T. Walker, II
With the departure of longtime Judge Diane Bull, the race for County Court at Law # 11 is also a wide-open race with Republican Aaron "The Institution" Burdette running against Democrat Sedrick Walker.  In the interest of full disclosure, I know Burdette far better than I know Walker.  Although I worked with Walker on a couple cases during his tenure as a prosecutor, Burdette is a good friend, and also my neighbor.

Having read the Chronicle's write up on the race, I did want to note how much I agreed with Walker's assessment of the overarching problem of the Misdemeanor courts:
 He told us that too many defendants are being punished "on the front end of the system" before they are found guilty and "not at the back end," after it's determined that their actions merit consequences. 
His explanation sheds light on the core inequity of these courts. Too often bail is unaffordable, or it's saddled with punitive and costly conditions, and too many defendants end up being treated like they're on probation even though they've merely been charged and not convicted of a crime.
He's absolutely right about that.  I wish I had thought of it the way he said it.

As I noted above, I worked with Walker on a couple of cases during his time as a prosecutor.  He was always cordial and on-the-level with how he handled cases.  He was very straightforward and easy to work with.  I didn't feel like I ever got to know him very well, because he was really quiet.  He does have experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, which is a positive attribute.

I've known Burdette since he was a young prosecutor and I've always enjoyed working with him.  I've handled cases against him, where he was upfront with the strengths and weaknesses of his case.  I've also dealt with him when he was supervising the Misdemeanor Division as Deputy Chief.  He did a good job with that and I'm glad that the Chronicle recognized the importance that experience had.  That position gave him an overview of the Misdemeanor system as a whole.  He had the opportunity to see all sixteen of the County Courts.  He was able to see what things worked and what things didn't.  If elected, he will be able to put that knowledge into practice.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Burdette with a 4-star rating, although they also gave Walker 4 stars.

County Court at Law # 12 -- Republican John Spjut vs. Democrat Cassandra Y. Holleman
With the retirement of longtime Judge Robin Brown, this race is also up for grabs.  The Republican candidate is John Spjut, brother of Court #10's Judge Dan Spjut, and the husband of retiring Judge Diane Bull.  I don't know him personally.  Per the Chronicle endorsement, he spent 30 years with HPD and then 20 years doing juvenile law.  He doesn't look old enough to already have 50 years of career behind him,

Also per the Chronicle, he wants to create a Narcotics Court if elected.  That's not really a practical idea since Misdemeanor courts don't handle cases involving truly serious drugs and the Ogg Administration already has some pretty good programs for people caught with marijuana.  He also stated that he could look at a police report and decide if it has any holes in it, which is all well and good, except that's not really what a judge does.

That being said, at least Spjut showed up to meet with the Chronicle.  Apparently, Holleman literally phoned it in when it came to her interview -- something that didn't sit well with the Editorial Board.  The Board subsequently called out Holleman for not having a good website for her candidacy and disputed her claim that she practiced criminal law.  I don't know if she practices criminal law or not.  I'm not familiar with her name and I didn't recognize her when I looked her up on Facebook.

The Chronicle ultimately endorsed Spjut with 2.5 stars over Holleman's 2 stars.  Based on this ranking, I think I'm finally understanding the Chronicle's "star rating" system.  Apparently, you get 1 star just for having a pulse.  You get another star if you communicate with the Board at all.  You get a half star credit for saying the word "treatment."  You get another star (perhaps two) if you are really good at your job.  And you get all the stars completely disregarded if you are an incumbent seeking re-election.

County Court at Law # 13  -- Republican Jessica Padilla vs. Democrat Raul Rodriguez
With the retirement of Judge Don Smyth, political newcomer Jessica (Needham) Padilla is running as the Republican candidate against Democrat Raul Rodriguez, who has previously run for office.  Both candidates are great candidates and both are friends of mine.

I've known Padilla since she was a baby prosecutor almost 18 years ago.  She has always been a diligent and hardworking attorney -- both during her tenure as a prosecutor and subsequently, as a defense attorney.  She is smart and works hard for her clients.  She has the right demeanor to have a great judicial temperament.  In her Chronicle interview, she emphasized the work she does in Harris County's Reintegration Court.

Rodriguez has been practicing criminal law longer than I have.  Although he practices in both Felony and Misdemeanor courts, his primary focus seems to have been in the County Courts.  He is a very nice guy who is highly respected in the Criminal Justice world.  He also serves as a municipal court judge, per the Chronicle article.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Rodriguez with a 3-star rating, although it gave the same rating to Needham.

County Court at Law # 14 -- Republican Judge Mike Fields (I) vs. Democrat David Singer
Incumbent Republican Judge Mike Fields is the only incumbent on the County Courts Ballot to receive the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle during this election cycle.  The reason being that Judge Fields is one of two judges who has elected not to fight against the bail bond lawsuit that is so near and dear to the Chronicle's heart.

The race for Court 14 is an interesting one because it is an exact replay of the race in 2014.  Democrat David Singer challenged Judge Fields then and now.  The Chronicle notes that they endorsed Singer in 2014 but that they have subsequently changed their mind since Judge Fields left the lawsuit.

I've known Judge Fields since I was a baby prosecutor.  I was assigned to his court as a Misdemeanor Three.  Quite frankly, I love the guy.  We've always gotten along and we seem to get each other's sense of humor.  Don't get me wrong.  There have been times that some of his policies have left me scratching my head, but I think his heart has always been in the right place when trying to deal with cases -- particularly DWI cases.  Over the past 19 years, I've seen him make courtroom policies that he subsequently was willing to change if they weren't working.  I've also seen him delve into almost every case before him, devoting as much time as necessary to give it his full attention.  As noted in the Chronicle's editorial, he's willing to change his mind if that's what he thinks is the right thing to do.  That's a good quality for a judge.

I've also known David Singer for quite some time.  I like him too, but I think he gets mad at me for what I write about him on the blog from time to time.  I think Singer is a good lawyer -- a really good lawyer, in fact.  However, he seems to get angry over some small things.  I can recall him getting really aggravated over me referring to him as a "perennial candidate" one time.  He also took to the comments section here to blast me for referring to him as "equally qualified" to another candidate he was running against.   That seemed like a disproportionate response for something written on a blog that isn't really read by too many people.

As noted above, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Judge Fields with 3.5 stars.  They gave the same rating to Singer.  As a side note, if I mysteriously disappear in the next few days, blame Singer.   Just kidding.  Kind of.

County Court at Law # 15 -- Republican Roger Bridgwater vs. Democrat Tonya Jones
With the retirement of longtime Judge Jean Spradling, Republican Roger Bridgwater brought forth his inevitable, never-ending quest to get elected back out on the road.  Bridgwater was appointed to the 178th District Court bench in 2007, only to lose it in the 2008 election.  He's never actually won an election.

As I've mentioned time and time again, I'm not a fan of Bridgwater.  I used to be. Unfortunately, his actions as a Bureau Chief in the Lykos Administration destroyed the respect I once had for the man.  I've written about it before a time or two.

Bridgwater knows I'm not a fan of his.  He's not a fan of mine either, and I get that.  So, I was rather stunned a few months ago when I learned that he was using something that I over a decade ago to create the absolutely FALSE impression that I supported his current campaign.  That's just dishonest, not to mention stupid.

I don't know Tonya Jones other than a few e-mail exchanges that we've had this season, but she's got my vote.  It is true that she has less years of legal experience than Bridgwater, but I'd rather vote for a young candidate who is honest than an old one who isn't.  The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Bridgwater with 4 stars, citing his years of experience and leadership potential.  The Board clearly doesn't know that much about Bridgwater.  The Board gave Jones 3.5 stars and stated it was only her lack of experience that got her the lower grade.

I have previously stated that I wasn't going to make endorsements this year, but I will make an exception in this race. I wholeheartedly endorse Tonya Jones for County Court at Law # 15.


Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the CCA, the local Courts of Appeals or the District Clerk?

Murray Newman said...

Working on it! It's a lot of writing!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out the sheer lunacy of the Chronicle's endorsements in the misdemeanor courts. How can anyone take them seriously when they create a "star" rating and proceed to disregard it? What is a voter to do who doesn't have access to more informed analysis?

Anonymous said...

The #failinghoustonchonicle has been circling the drain for many years. Even years ago - when they actually had a circulation - many people used their endorsements as a guide to vote the other way. Now, the opinions of the editorial board are a useless, pathetic joke. Their actions this year of evaluating many of the incumbents higher than the opponents while endorsing the lesser-qualified candidates exposes their extreme bias.