180th District Court -- Judge Dasean Jones (I)(D) vs. Tami Pierce (R) -- There is probably no greater contrast in the type of candidates on either side of the ballot than the one we see in the battle for the 180th District Court. The Republican challenger, Tami Pierce is a retired police officer and former prosecutor whose campaign website encourages voters to be "Fierce with Pierce." She apparently was a defense attorney for ten years before becoming a prosecutor in Polk County. Although it is a cute slogan, I'm not sure that ferocity is something that attorneys look for in a presiding judge. The ideal judge, as I noted in part one of this election recap, is a neutral one who can call balls and strikes without an agenda -- no ferocity necessary. Although I will give her credit for being well-versed in criminal law, the fact that her career hasn't been in Harris County bothers me. Harris County isn't a small county like Polk and I don't know how it could be more polarly opposite.
By contrast, Judge Dasean Jones is probably one of the quietest and most subtle people that I know. I knew him before he was a judge and before I knew of his political aspirations found him to be someone very concerned about the Criminal Justice System being fair to all those who came before it. He is an Army veteran who saw active duty and continues to serve as a Major in the Army Reserves. He has strong opinions about how the Criminal Justice System and it should be no surprise that he has not allowed himself to be anything remotely resembling an arm of the prosecution. The calls that he has made from the Bench are made from a position of what he thinks is best. He's making calls as a member of an independent judiciary as he should -- even if public opinion doesn't like it.
182nd District Court -- Judge Danny Lacayo (I)(D) vs. Robert Jackson (R) -- there are several things that I find to be wildly amusing about the candidacy of Robert Jackson who is running for the 182nd District Court against the wildly popular incumbent Judge Danny Lacayo. During the primaries, the DA's Office angrily denied encouraging its prosecutors to run against judges it disliked. I guess they consider encouraging one of its investigators who just so happens to possess a law degree to be a different matter. The second thing that I find to be wildly hysterical is Investigator Jackson is touting having won the Houston Bar Association's Judicial Preference Poll when he doesn't actually practice law.
Here's a spoiler alert for any potential voters looking at the Houston Bar Association's Judicial Preference Poll: it's not an accurate barometer of the opinion of people who actually practice criminal law. The vast vast majority of Criminal Defense Attorneys in Harris County aren't members of the Houston Bar Association for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it largely caters to attorneys who practice civil law. The second is that it is generally a fairly conservative organization and most defense attorneys are more liberally leaning. Additionally, the Harris County District Attorney's Office has traditionally paid for membership for all of its prosecutors to be members of the Houston Bar Association so that they would have a voting bloc. There is probably no better example of how this turns out a skewed result than an investigator who doesn't actually practice law being deemed a better jurist than a very well-liked and respected judge like Lacayo.
I've known Judge Lacayo since he was a baby prosecutor and I am proud to also call him my friend. He was a fair and reasonable prosecutor during his time with the Office before becoming a diligent and zealous advocate with the Public Defender's Office. On the Bench, he has proven himself to be a neutral yet tough judge. He is the first person to give a non-violent a second chance, but he's made himself very clear that he isn't a fan of the third chance. I've had him rule against me more than I've had him rule for me but his rulings were all based in the law, not personal preference. He follows the law to the letter and isn't afraid to drop the hammer on someone he finds to be beyond redemption. He's a fantastic judge and deserves to be reelected.
183rd District Court -- Gemayel Haynes (D) vs. Kristin Guiney (R) -- the 183rd District Court Bench is technically an open bench since Democratic candidate Gemayel Haynes defeated incumbent Judge Chuck Silverman in the primary. He faces former 179th & 232nd District Court Judge Kristin Guiney on the ballot. Both candidates are good friends of mine, so this is a tough one for me.
Kristin Guiney had an excellent reputation on the Bench during her tenure. She was first elected to the 179th in the 2012 election, only to be swept out in 2016 with the remainder of the Republican Judges. She was appointed to the 232nd District Court to complete the term of Judge Mary Lou Keel when Keel went to the Court of Criminal Appeals but was swept out again in 2018 as part of that Democratic Sweep. No one, including her opponents in those races, would attribute those losses to anything she had done wrong. She was very well-liked and respected during her time on the Bench and that was a feeling shared by both the Defense Bar and the State. On a personal note, Guiney is someone I've known since she started at the Office. We don't see each other as often as we used to but she is still a family friend.
Similarly, Gemayel Haynes is also a good friend of mine that I've had the opportunity to know and watch since he started as a lawyer. We also used to be neighbors (RIP Dorothy's!) I've watched him grow from a relatively shy (or at least quieter) prosecutor into an outspoken leader within the Harris County Public Defenders Office. I always enjoy talking to him because he is so passionate about the Criminal Justice System and the fair application of the law to all people accused of crimes. I think that he also would make a great judge.
184th District Court -- Kat Thomas (D) vs. Lori Deangelo (R) -- The 184th District Court is another open bench after Democratic candidate Katherine "Kat" Thomas defeated incumbent Judge Abigail Anastasio in the March primary. I find this race to be a curious one because it has a defense attorney running as the Republican and a prosecutor running as the Democrat. Both candidates are friends of mine. I've known Lori Deangelo longer, but I would say that I'm closer to Kat.
Lori was slightly ahead of me at the Office in seniority and she stayed on quite a bit longer than I did. When I dealt with her from the defense side of things, she was always fair and pleasant to work with. She was on track as a career prosecutor and I was surprised when she left the Office. She ran for District Attorney in 2020 but did not win the Republican nomination. She has been a defense attorney for quite some time now and I do think that is a valuable perspective to have as a judge.
For about a year or two, it seemed like almost every case I had pending in Harris County was being handled by Kat Thomas, but I definitely was not complaining about it. I enjoyed working on cases with her. She was professional, friendly, and completely above board in all of the cases that we worked on together. She was the prosecutor in vehicular crimes and we dealt with some pretty gruesome and tragic cases. She was open-minded and fair. She was a prosecutor whose word I could take to the bank and she was a pleasure to work with.
185th District Court -- Andrea "Andy" Beall" (D) vs. Chris Carmona (R) -- like the 183rd and 184th, the race for the 185th District Court is an open one after Andy Beall defeated incumbent Judge Jason Luong in the March primary. I was pretty open about my support for Judge Luong in March and my disdain at the many of the "below the belt" attacks on him as a judge. I was disappointed that the campaign took that tone because I thought it was unnecessary. Andy Beall was a strong candidate who could have run a strong campaign on her own credentials. I did feel that her positions on certain criminal law issues were more closely aligned with Republican ideology than Democrat and I pointed that out.
All of that being said, I'll vote for Andy in the 2022 election because her experience is in Criminal Law. She is a felony chief prosecutor and she understands that system.
I don't really know Chris Carmona personally, although I'm friends with him on Facebook. I supported him when he ran for County Attorney in 2016 against Jim Leitner because he, um, was running against Jim Leitner. That being said, it seems like Carmona runs for a different office quite frequently. That doesn't mean that he's a bad person or even a bad candidate, but I'd rather have someone on the Bench who is dedicated to the practice of criminal law and not just seeking an elected position.
208th District Court -- Beverly Armstrong (D) vs. Heather Hudson (R) - the race for the 208th District Court Bench is an unusual one for me because I don't know either of the candidates. As I mentioned in my primary write-up back in February, Beverly Armstrong has been a career prosecutor in some of the surrounding counties and quite a few people that I know and respect have spoken very highly of her. According to her website, Heather Hudson is a career prosecutor who has worked in other jurisdictions but has been in Harris County for several years now. It indicates that she is in the appellate division, so that would easily explain why I don't think I've met her.
209th District Court -- Judge Brian Warren (I)(D) vs. Kevin Fulton (R) -- the race for the 209th District Court is not a close one for me. Judge Brian Warren and I have been good friends since we served together in the 174th District Court as prosecutors. He left the D.A.'s Office before I did to start a successful career as a defense attorney, and he took the time to sit second chair with me when I tried my first case as a defense attorney. In many ways, he's like a brother to me and I couldn't be more excited or proud to see what a great job he's done on the Bench during his first term. He has proven himself to be a careful and thoughtful jurist who is actively involved the day-to-day operations of the CJC.
I'm not familiar with the Republican candidate in this race, Kevin Fulton, and I'm not seeing that he even has a campaign website up. His State Bar profile lists him as a lawyer who practices "business, family, labor-employment, litigation, personal injury, real estate, wills-trusts-probate." Notably absent from that list is criminal law, which should be tremendously concerning to anyone who actually cares about the Criminal Justice System.
228th District Court -- Judge Frank Aguilar (I)(D) vs. Andy Taylor (R) -- as I noted in my February write-up on the primaries, I'm a big fan of 228th District Court Judge Frank Aguilar and out of the judges elected in the 2018 election, I've probably had the most contested hearings in front of him. In each instance that I've appeared before him, he let the parties try their cases without intervening unless called upon. He called balls and strikes and made his rulings based on the law. His personality was never interjected into the proceedings. In my mind, that's what a judge should do and how a judge should be. He is not a judge who could be described as either being pro-Defense or pro-State, and that's all that I think we could ask for.
I've seen his Republican opponent, Andy Taylor, around the courthouse on a regular basis, but I don't know him personally. I actually didn't know his name until I looked up his campaign website. To be fair, he does practice criminal law unlike many of the other candidates the Republican Party has chosen to run against good judges. I don't know much about him.
230th District Court -- Judge Chris Morton (I)(D) vs. Brad Hart (R) - ugh. And then we get to these two candidates, who seem to be bound and determined to give me an ulcer by running against each other again. They ran against each other in 2018 when Judge Morton won the bench previously held by Hart, and I told them both back then that they were stressing me out because they were both close friends. So apparently, they decided it would be fun to run against each other again.
The reason that the race between these two candidates stresses me out so much isn't just because they are good friends. It is also because they are both good judges. Brad Hart was my first chief when I started at the D.A.'s Office and I consider him to be a friend and a mentor. He was a good prosecutor, teacher and leader. I was very happy for him when he became judge and I thought he did a great job of it. I was honored to speak at his investiture. As I wrote back in 2018, I was disappointed when Chris ran against him although I thought Chris would make a great judge too.
As it turns out, I was right. Chris Morton has turned into a great judge. He's proven himself to be the kind of judge that you hope to find on the bench if you find yourself having to go to court. He follows the law and his conscience without allowing himself to be swayed by public opinion or pressure. He's making rulings based on his considerable judgment and is more than happy to take as much time as needed to explain his rationale if you disagree with him. He's not swayed by personal friendships (he set one of my client's bonds at $1.5 million) and takes great steps to ensure that the appointed attorneys in his court aren't selected by him in order to ensure neutrality.
232nd District Court -- Judge Josh Hill (I)(D) vs. Joshua Normand (R) -- one of the easier decisions on the ballot is the race between incumbent 232nd District Court Judge Josh Hill and attorney Joshua Normand. Since taking office in January 2019, Judge Hill has done an outstanding job on the Bench, running his court fairly and efficiently without showing any level of favoritism toward either the State or the Defense as he makes his rulings. He has been active in seeking (and giving) input to help keep the Criminal Justice Center moving along as effectively as possible during the Covid crisis.
On the Bench, he has been a compassionate judge who will take a considerable amount of time talking to Defendants to make sure that they understand the legal process. He takes his time reviewing all the relevant factors in determining bond. He does his own legal research on issues that he doesn't know the answer to off the top of his head. He makes his rulings based on the right factors instead of public opinion.
As with several of the other candidates on the Republican side of the ballot, I don't recognize Joshua Normand by name or sight after looking at his website. His professional website indicates that he primarily does tax law, which is a far cry from criminal law. It mentions that he does some criminal law, but I have no idea who he is.
248th District Court -- Judge Hilary Unger (I)(D) vs. Julian Ramirez (R) -- I didn't know Judge Hilary Unger very well before she took the bench in January 2019, although I think I've known her in passing since I've been in Harris County. During the past several years, I've gotten to know her better as I've appeared in her court on multiple occasions and also had meetings with her and other judges about the Managed Assigned Counsel (MAC) program.
Judge Unger is someone who is extremely passionate about the Criminal Justice System and works hard to make sure that it is fair and equitable to all who appear before her. She has no qualms about spending as much time as she needs to when evaluating issues before her, both big and small. She devotes a great amount of attention to all matters before her and she does a good job.
Republican candidate Julian Ramirez and I used to be friends when we were both at the District Attorney's Office but had a falling out after I left. I'm not a fan and I don't trust him. He was one of the prosecutors whose contract was not renewed by Kim Ogg when she took Office. After leaving the Office, he has stayed away from any defense work but has done some special prosecutions. I'm not sure if that's because he can't bring himself to be on the defense side of things, but he definitely lacks perspective on that side of the Bench.
262nd District Court -- Judge Lori Gray (I)(D) vs. Tonya McLaughlin (R) -- I only knew Judge Lori Gray in passing prior to her taking the Bench in 2019. She's a very nice lady, but I don't know her well at all. During the few times I've appeared in front of her, she's been very nice, but I've never had to try anything contested in front of her. I don't have anything negative to say about her.
I have known Tonya McLaughlin since she and I worked together at the D.A.'s Office, and I think the world of her. I supported her when she previously ran for Court 10 back in 2014 and I stand by all of the nice things I had to say about her back then. Tonya has been a prosecutor and a defense attorney. She knows trial work and she knows appellate work. She's also one of the genuinely nicest people I know. I think she would make a fantastic judge.
263rd District Court -- Melissa Morris (D) vs. Amber Cox (R) -- the 263rd District Court is also an open race after Democratic Candidate Melissa Morris defeated incumbent Judge Amy Martin in the March Primary. As I mentioned in my February post, I don't know Melissa except in passing and we are friends on Facebook. She has always been very nice to me, but I just don't know enough about her to say too much.
I know Republican Candidate Amber Cox a little better than I know Melissa. Amber is a prosecutor at the D.A.'s Office and I worked with her on a very serious case involving some serious injuries that had a very strong self-defense claim. Amber was extremely above-board and heard me out on the issues I brought to her attention and, in my opinion, she ultimately did the right thing. I enjoyed working with her on that case, but have not had many other opportunities to do so. She is always friendly but I do not know her very well outside of work.
482nd District Court -- Veronica Nelson (D) vs. Judge Maritza Antu (R) - the race for the 482nd District Court is an anomaly on the ballot this year because it is the one and only criminal judicial race where the sitting judge is a Republican facing a Democratic challenger. That's because the 482nd is the newest court in the county, having been created by the legislature only a year or so ago. Since it was newly created, the Governor got to pick who the new judge would be. Since the Governor is Republican, he obviously picked a Republican to be judge, and the person he appointed was former prosecutor and then defense attorney Maritza Antu.
There are a couple of caveats that I have to give before proceeding.
The first caveat that I need to give is that Judge Antu's opponent, Veronica Nelson, is someone that I consider to be a very close friend. She and I tried a case against each other when she was a relatively junior prosecutor at the District Attorney's Office and I respected the way she tried the case. She was candid, reasonable, and completely above-board in her handling of a case. We got to be friends during the course of that trial, and she is one of my favorite people to talk to. She likes to give me hell, but she knows she loves me. Veronica left the D.A.'s Office several years ago and since then has served as the Staff Attorney to the Criminal and Civil Courts at Law. Her duties are advising those judges on issues in the law that they may need assistance with.
Veronica is very invested in the Harris County Criminal Justice System and what needs to be done to improve it. We talk quite frequently about issues we see in the CJC and I have always appreciated her insight. I think she would make a phenomenal judge and she has my full support. She cares about the integrity of the system and would be a great addition as judge.
I knew Judge Antu when she was a prosecutor and never had a conflict with her. She handled cases that I was defending and I always found her to be fair (maybe a little overzealous) on my cases. We didn't often agree, but we didn't fight. She, too, was a victim of Kim Ogg's purge when Ogg took office in 2016, and I felt that was unwarranted (as I felt about almost all of the other victims). We were friendly with each other after she left. I'm friends with her husband, Matt Peneguy, who works for the Feds. Our kids went to the same daycare and we talked at a great many birthday parties. We weren't best friends but we certainly weren't enemies.
In the election of 2018, she ran for the Republican nomination for the 185th District Court against former Judge Stacey Bond. In my blog write-up back then, I said nothing negative about Judge Antu, but I did note that Judge Bond was one of the best judges I had ever practiced in front of. Ultimately, Judge Bond won the primary, only to lose to Judge Jason Luong in the general election. Judge Antu never spoke to me socially again, however. We weren't super close to begin with, but I was kind of surprised at how angry she was about me failing to endorse her.
I don't bring that up to reopen old wounds, but to give context when I say that to her credit, Judge Antu has been nothing but courteous and professional to me on the Bench. When the 482nd was created, multiple cases were pulled from the already existing courts and sent to the 482nd to ultimately be disposed of. Several very serious cases that I had pending elsewhere were suddenly in front of someone who hadn't made eye contact with me in years. I was concerned. Ultimately, the concern that she would treat me unfairly for personal reasons was misplaced. Almost all of those serious cases of mine ended up being dismissed when Judge Antu held the State to a strict timetable for being ready for trial.
That being said, I do have concerns that Judge Antu's has very pro-prosecutorial tendencies that have led to her assisting the State on occasion when the State fails to do its job. I recently had a client charged with a serious case who was alleged to have committed bond violations. The State moved to hold him at no bond, and as his attorney, I demanded a hearing on that matter. The standard of proof that the State would have needed to prove to have my client held at no bond was not very high. All they really needed to do was subpoena one witness and have that witness testify for about five minutes.
We set the case for a hearing. The State forgot to subpoena any witnesses.
On the day of the hearing, the State proceeded to the court on the hearing with no witnesses. I object right and left that without witnesses, my client was being deprived of a hearing. That was denied. The State attempted to introduce documents without a witness to authenticate those documents or show that they were relevant to my client. I objected. That objection was overruled. At the end of the hearing, the State's motion to hold at no bond was granted.
In the big scheme of things, I can say that if the prosecutors had put on the evidence that they were required to, pretty much any judge in the CJC would have most likely held my client at no bond. But, I think that every judge in that building would have required the State to make that minimal effort to prove the facts alleged first. Judge Antu didn't, and that concerned me. It is my understanding that I'm not the only attorney who has gone through this with her, and I want to be very clear that I don't think her ruling was anything personal. And if you are wondering, yes, I'm working on a writ to hopefully correct it and get an actual hearing.
The issue that I have with Judge Antu's ruling is what concerns me about what seems to be the platform of the Republican Judicial candidates in general. I don't like the message that "even if the prosecutors don't do their job and prove a case, the judges will incarcerate the accused anyway." It's contrary to the principles of the Constitution and the entirety of the Criminal Justice System.
I believe that if the State does what it is supposed to do, then ultimately the truth will prevail and the System will work. If the State doesn't do what it is supposed to do, then it won't. It's just that simple.
But what the System definitely does not need is a judiciary that is there to help the State along anyway when the State doesn't meet its burden. That's not justice. That's just having a second prosecutor on the bench. If the State can't win a case without another prosecutor on the Bench, then maybe they shouldn't be trying it in the first place.