With everything going on in the world lately, I have to admit that early voting kind of snuck up on me this year. I remember hearing something about Governor Greg Abbott adding a week of early voting a few months ago, but then I saw that some of the Right Wing "power brokers" had tried to sue him to stop that from happening. Apparently, the plan didn't change, and citizens of Texas can begin voting Early Voting on Tuesday, October 13th. It ends on Friday, October 30th and Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd.
Regardless of whether you are a Right-leaning voter or a Left-leaning voter, you should anticipate turn out to be tremendous this year. You should definitely be making plans to vote early and give yourself some padding if your original scheduled plan to vote falls through. My guess would be that given the new numbers of registered voters (over 200,000 new voters since the 2016 election, I believe), that even traditionally "slow" days during Early Voting could potentially bring long lines and wait times at the polls.
So, now that I've lectured you on your Civic Duty, here are my thoughts on the Election itself.
This is going to be the first election in Texas that doesn't allow for straight-ticket voting, and in a Presidential Election year, the ballot is long. As in 2016 and 2018, I expect that Texas will remain a Red State (although not as Red as in years past) and Harris County will be a Deeper Blue than ever. Although there are some great candidates on both sides of the political spectrum in Harris County, I don't think that the Republicans will have much of a chance of taking back benches or positions even with the long-overdue demise of straight-ticket ballots.
So, here are my thoughts on the candidates involved in our Harris County Criminal Justice World if you would like to actually take the time to consider your independent voting choices.
Harris County District Attorney -- Kim Ogg (D)(I) vs. Mary Nun Huffman (R)
You may have heard me mention the name "Kim Ogg" here on this blog once or twice, and obviously, this is THE race that everyone in our world looks at most closely. As most of you know, I voted for Kim in 2016. I agreed with her platforms and her views on how the Criminal Justice System should be evolving and how it should be run. I still agree with many, if not most, of those views, but Ogg's methods of running her office and putting her platform into place have been nothing short of disastrous. In all honesty, looking back on the first four years of Ogg's governing, I feel the same level of frustration that Obi-Wan Kenobi had towards Anakin Skywalker when he told him "It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them!"
Star Wars analogies aside, Ogg's promises of "progressive" and "evidence-based" prosecution have been nothing short of farcical as she has spent the entirety of her time fighting for headlines rather than fighting for justice. After wiping out a significant percentage of experienced prosecutors as her first move in office, she's waged war with HPD, judges, her own administration, and her prosecutors all in the name of her own pride. To be honest, it has been shocking.
She has sought politically motivated indictments on cases like Arkema when she knew that the criminal laws would never support a conviction. She's fired or punished respected and experienced prosecutors who have disagreed with her over unstable policies (including her own 1st Assistant). She's hired political donors to positions they were unqualified to hold and then refused to fire them when they predictably failed at their jobs or broke the law. She's putting the landmark Michael Morton Act (which required prosecutors to share discovery evidence with defense attorneys) at risk, as she has instituted a policy of withholding evidence if the Defendant just so happens to be a police officer.
She's been an absolute disaster.
Her opponent, Mary Nan Huffman, is a former prosecutor from Montgomery County and is currently an attorney for the Houston Police Officers' Union. Her platform is definitely far more conservative than Ogg's. Those things that have so grossly marred Ogg's first term are things that Huffman has been very clear that she intends to correct. She has the strong support of the police unions and all Republican groups who are politically active.
As a defense attorney, I have to say that I'm not in favor of some of Huffman's ideas for how the Office should be run. That being said, the job of the elected District Attorney isn't to make the Defense Bar happy. To paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, prosecutors have their side of the street to work, and the Defense Bar has theirs. Additionally, if Huffman were to cultivate a D.A.'s Office filled with experienced prosecutors who actually knew what they were doing and weren't afraid to do the right thing (as opposed to being terrified of the ego-maniacal fame hound at the top), I think a Huffman office would work out just fine.
And at the end of the day, Huffman isn't a crook. I'm not sure that I can say the same about Ogg.
My vote: Mary Nan Huffman
Moving onto the Judicial elections, it is unsurprising to see that there are not many contested races on the ballot after the lopsided Democratic victories of 2016 and 2018. Very few aspiring Republicans judges wanted to waste the money on a campaign that will very like prove to be futile.
339th District Court -- Jesse McClure (R) vs. Te'iva Bell (D)
Without fail, every election that I've written about since 2008 has had at least one race that gives me ulcers to write about for personal reasons. This year, the race for the 339th has been that race.
Judge Jesse McClure was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to replace Judge Maria T. Jackson when she stepped down to run for higher office. I've known Judge McClure since his time as a prosecutor, and quite frankly, I think he's great. He's done a tremendous job during his short time on the bench. His court is friendly and pleasant to appear in. He gives thoughtful consideration to all of the legal issues before him. He's demonstrated time and again that his default position is one of compassion and kindness. His rulings are fair and well-reasoned. Being a judge is clearly his calling, and he has excelled at it.
Te'iva Bell is a former prosecutor who has been with the Public Defenders' Office since its inception. She is my friend and a very dear person. I've known Te'iva since she was a shy baby prosecutor, and I've watched her over the years as she has grown into the position of a confident, knowledgable leader in the Defense Bar. I have all the confidence in the world that if she is elected that will be an excellent judge, as well.
What I write here will have no bearing on the election in the long run, so I will just say that I think Harris County will be well served by whichever candidate ultimately succeeds. It is a shame that they cannot both serve. Hopefully, someday they can.
351st District Court -- Natalia "Nata" Cornelio (D) vs. Arlene Hecht (R)
Earlier this year, after I had made my recommendations in the primary races, I received a phone call from Natalia "Nata" Cornelio. I had stated my intention of voting for Judge George Powell in the Democratic Primary for the 351st, and she wanted to talk about it. She wasn't upset with anything I had written about her (or Judge Powell), but she wanted to make sure that I understood her views on the Criminal Justice System and why she was running for the Bench. It ended up being a pretty long phone call and one that I enjoyed very much. We've had a subsequent conversation now that she is the official Democratic candidate, and I enjoyed that talk, too.
As I noted in my primary write-up, although Nata is not as familiar of a face around the Harris County CJC, she definitely has strong credentials in criminal defense -- her practice has just centered more around the Federal System. Those who know her personally are big fans of hers, and after my conversations with her, so am I. She is very passionate about the Criminal Justice System in Harris County, and is very eager to tackle the issues we are all facing under the pandemic. We talked for a long time about effective and creative ideas about getting the wheels of Justice moving again. Not only was I very impressed by her enthusiasm for the tasks ahead, but I was also appreciative of her open-mindedness in seeking input from multiple sources.
In my last conversation with Nata, she mentioned that she had an opponent in November, which was surprising news to me. I thought the 351st Bench was uncontested after the primary. Sure enough, I learned that Arlene Hecht was running for office. Although the last name sounded familiar in the political world, I had never heard of Arlene Hecht. So, I did some internet sleuthing and didn't really find out all that much more about her.
Her own website says she graduated from law school in 1991, but then states she's been practicing law for 11 years. I'm not a mathematician, but it seems that there may be some gap years in there somewhere. She also lists herself as a defense attorney and prosecutor. I've been practicing in Harris County in some capacity since 1999, and I have never seen her nor heard of her prior to this time. Being the social butterfly that I am (although I'm not as much as I used to be), I tend to at least know of most people who come through the courthouse, so I find my unfamiliarity with Ms. Hecht to be somewhat unusual.
She is apparently currently an employee of Kim Ogg's District Attorney's Office, but given Ogg's penchant for handing out positions to friends and supporters, that isn't saying much. She is apparently a fairly recent addition to the Office and is assigned to the intake division, where she doesn't handle cases beyond their initial filings. There seems to be a very vast difference when you look at the qualifications between the two candidates that should make this decision a no-brainer.
My vote: Natalia "Nata" Cornelio
County Court at Law # 12 (Unexpired Term) -- Genesis Draper (D) vs. Linda Garcia (R)
When Judge Genesis Draper was appointed by the Commissioners' Court to fill the vacancy of Court # 12, I had never met her. I knew her husband, Brandon Leonard, who is a friend and all-around fantastic human being, but I'd never met his wife. When she took the Bench, I learned more about her credentials and experience in the Criminal Justice System, and I remain confused as to how I never met her before.
Earlier this year, I had a case that went to trial in her court and I had the opportunity to see Judge Draper in action. To say that I became a fan of hers would be an understatement.
Judge Draper navigated a case where the State's prosecutor and I had a very big difference of opinion on the rules of evidence, discovery, and the law. She held the State to their duties and obligations and she held me to the same standards. But what struck me as we tried this case was that there was absolutely no uncertainty in how Judge Draper handled her courtroom or her rulings. She knew the law and she knew it off the top of her head. That's not always the case in all courtrooms. She ruled against me at times and she ruled for me on others. Whether her rulings benefited my case or not, they were all sound.
Without rehashing the details of the case, which was dismissed shortly after a jury was seated, she made very clear to the State that she expected more from them than what they were putting forth in cases set for trial. She emphasized to them the need to better evaluate their cases prior to setting them for trial. She also expertly addressed the issue of a Batson challenge being made against the State. Without embarrassing anyone involved, she emphasized the importance of a very key component of our Criminal Justice System that is often overlooked. I can't do her words justice as I try to remember them off the top of my head, but I recall thinking that they belonged in a legal opinion or a textbook on criminal procedure.
My experience trying a case in front of Judge Draper left me of the opinion that I hope to see her going on to higher and higher benches in the years to come.
Judge Draper's opponent in this is Linda Garcia, who is also someone that I highly respect and consider a friend. She had a previous tenure on the bench in County Court at Law # 16, which she lost in the Democratic sweep of 2016. She is a very experienced lawyer who enjoys an outstanding reputation among her peers. She was respected in her roles as Assistant District Attorney and on the Board of Pardons and Parole, as well. I honestly don't know of anyone who has anything negative to say about Linda. I certainly don't. She's a great person and a great lawyer.
But, in my opinion, Judge Draper is a rock star at her job and is probably destined for an even bigger stage.
My vote: Genesis Draper
County Court at Law # 16 -- Darrell Jordan (D)(I) vs. Bill Harmon (R)
Those of you who have followed this blog for a decent amount of time are probably aware by now that Judge Darrell Jordan and I are not exactly the best of friends. I've written about those reasons in the past and he has let me know that he did not appreciate that. I understand that. I'm not going to go back over those reasons.
I did want to bring up those personal issues because I want to give Judge Jordan credit for never once having let them affect how he has treated me or my clients who have appeared before him in his court. I sincerely appreciate that, because I'm sure that is not always an easy thing to do.
I would also be remiss if I didn't point out some of the things that I've seen Judge Jordan do that I think are both progressive and helpful from the Bench. If I'm not mistaken, he was the first judge from the county courts to support the bail reform lawsuit that ultimately led to much-needed changes in stopping people from pleading out on cases simply to get released from custody. It was a controversial decision but a good one. He was also one of the first judges to come up with the radical idea of not making Defendants show up for unnecessary court appearances unless there was a substantive matter that needed to be addressed on a case.
These decisions haven't always gone without controversy, but Judge Jordan has not shied away from them. In his court, the State does not have a "home-field advantage," and as a Judge who took the Bench prior to the 2016 Democratic Sweep, he was often alone in making some of those tough decisions.
There probably could not be a starker contrast to Judge Jordan than former County Court at Law and District Court Judge Bill Harmon. In his days on the bench, Judge Harmon never failed to be a wildly entertaining storyteller and generally fun person to hang around. However, he was one of the most pro-State judges to take the bench. He relished his awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and put them on display even when asked to take them down by defense attorneys during a trial.
The Criminal Justice System has evolved in the 21 years since I've been apart of it. The days of the State being treated preferentially treated over the Defense have given way to a stronger emphasis on the presumption of innocence. Judge Harmon is a throwback to how things used to be while Judge Jordan is an example of how things have evolved as they should.
My vote: Darrell Jordan
Harris County Sheriff -- Ed Gonzalez (D)(I) vs. Joe Danna (R)
Although the actions of the Harris County Sheriff don't really directly affect the Criminal Justice Center, I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to point out the pretty damn phenomenal job that Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has done during his first term as Sheriff.
The past four years have been filled with more turbulence than I can think of since I've lived in Houston, Sheriff Gonzalez started out his term having to deal with Hurricane Harvey and he's been dealing with the COVID crisis all year. In addition to his normal day to day operations, he's been handed one major problem to deal with after another. He's done so while avoiding any major scandals or drop in morale in his department. That's no small accomplishment in an office his size and Sheriff Gonzalez deserves to be commended for it.
I don't know Joe Danna and have nothing negative to say about him, but Sheriff Gonzalez has been a rock star in his own right. He has navigated the Harris County Sheriff's Office through some very choppy waters with purpose and grace. I wish him another four years and many more at a job that he is so clearly good at.
My vote: Ed Gonzalez
So, those are my recommendations for the races directly related to the Harris County Criminal Justice System. As always, there are some other races that have ties to what we do at 1201 Franklin.
HCDA-alumni and attorney Akilah Bacy (D) would be a great choice for Texas House District 138.
HCDA-alumni and defense attorney Ann Johnson (D) would be a great choice for State Rep for District 134.
HCDA-alumni David Newell (R) has been doing a great job on the Court of Criminal Appeals and deserves your vote.
My friend Veronica Rivas-Molloy (D) isn't from the Criminal Justice World, but she's been working hard to get input on the issues that affect us all. I've known Veronica for 20 years and she would make an outstanding Justice for 1st Court of Appeals.
And finally, our old friend and former-Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel (R) (man, I miss him as D.C.) is running for tax assessor. He's a good man who does a good job with his responsibilities. I'm glad to see him on the ballot again.
Whether you like all, some, or none of my recommendations, I hope that you will take the time to vote. As always, I have a lot to say about candidates, but anyone who puts themselves out there to run for office has my respect for the time and effort put into the endeavor.
The least the rest of us can do is turn out to vote.