Balancing the Scales of Justice on Texas’ Most Important Courts

Dems run en masse for statewide judicial seats

A strange sensation – hope – pervades the Texas Democratic Party this year and has resulted in something not seen since the mid-1990s: contested primaries for nominations to the state's two high courts.

"We're seeing unprecedented amounts of candidates running," said Glen Maxey, the party's primary director. "And this time, we're doing it without having to twist arms or reach out to unqualified candidates. The candidates we have are qualified, diverse, and ready to take on Republicans."

It's been over 20 years since a Democrat has held a seat on either the Texas Supreme Court or the Court of Criminal Appeals. The mantra of many of the judicial candidates in 2020? Let's bring "balance" to Texas' high courts. To that end, there are four contested Democratic primaries for Supreme Court seats, and two for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Texas Supreme Court

"Even the skeptics agree that this is our best opportunity to win statewide in 25 years," said Amy Clark Meachum, campaigning for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. An Austin-based jurist looking to move up, Meachum has served almost 10 years as judge of Texas' 201st District Court. She is in the mold that's beginning to define the 21st century Texas Demo­cratic candidate: young, progressive, and a capable fundraiser. On Jan. 15, Meachum reported raising $139,370 from over 300 donations, a big number and the highest total of any Democratic candidate for the judiciary this year. Her primary opponent is Jerry Zimmerer, first elected to the Harris County 14th Court of Appeals in 2018 after a career as a managing member of Zimmerer & Associates and a senior project manager with AT&T Mobility.

Larry Praeger is traveling the state in his bid for Place 6 on the Supreme Court. Recent Facebook posts show him in Hico and Big Spring. Praeger has practiced law in Dallas since 1988, specializing in family law and criminal law. Kathy Cheng is traveling too, vowing to visit all 254 counties. She ran for this same position in 2018, receiving 46% of the vote in the general election. She's had a private practice in Houston for the last 18 years doing estate planning, probate litigation, commercial litigation, and other kinds of law.

The contest for Place 7 features Staci Williams and Brandy Voss. Williams has served on the 101st Civil District Court since 2014. Before that she was a trial attorney, an arbitrator, and a municipal court judge. She's active in the Dallas community, serving on various boards and committees and supporting the North Texas Volunteer Center, the African American Museum, and other causes. Voss has spent the last few years as an appellate attorney in the Rio Grande Valley and has experience as a staff attorney for the 13th Court of Appeals. She's also raised quite a bit of money: $100,696.

Another experienced Austinite looking to move up, Gisela Triana is campaigning for Place 8. Triana won a seat on the 3rd Court of Appeals with a nine-point win over Gov. Greg Abbott's choice for the position in 2018, part of the Democratic sweep of four court races that year that has contributed to the current optimism. Triana is second only to Meachum in donations, with $100,970. If she gets through the primary, she will again challenge an Abbott appointee, this time Brett Busby. Triana's primary opponent, Peter Kelly, has been a justice on the 1st Court of Appeals since 2018. Prior to that, he was a founding partner of Kelly, Durham & Pittard LLP, a highly regarded firm with offices in Houston, Dallas, and Santa Fe.

Court of Criminal Appeals

CCA Place 3 has attracted three Demo­crat­ic candidates. Dan Wood, a trial and appellate attorney for 32 years, vows to work toward ending the disparity in rates of incarceration for minorities and to conduct fair reviews of death penalty cases (something the Court of Criminal Appeals is not known for). Elizabeth Davis Frizell is a former Dallas County Criminal Court judge who narrowly lost the primary for Dallas district attorney in 2018. William Pieratt Demond of Houston describes himself as a "constitutional rights attorney." On the GOP side of the ballot, Bert Richardson is the vote for the status quo, having served in the position since 2014. His challenger is Gina Parker, an attorney, businesswoman, and former Miss Waco who identifies as a "constitutional conservative," and has tried to find a position in the Republican Party for 15 years or more. She's big on school prayer, fossil fuels, and Trump's border wall.

Place 4 has drawn two Democrats hoping to take on to GOP incumbent Kevin Yeary. Steve Miears has 36 years of experience as a trial and appellate attorney and touts his experience in death penalty cases. His website states: "I know this area of the law and how it is evolving." Noting that the court "handled over 3,500 petitions for writs of habeas corpus" last year, Miears writes that the judge "elected to this bench should have experience" handling such requests. His opponent, Tina Clinton, has been a district judge in a Dallas County felony court since 2018, after eight previous years presiding in a misdemeanor court. She's also taught criminal law all over the country.


TRAVIS COUNTY'S CIVIL AND CRIMINAL COURTS

Candidate crib sheet for contested races

53rd Civil District Court

Kennon Wooten and Maria Cantú Hexsel are running to take the place of Scott Jenkins, who is retiring after 20 years on the bench. Wooten is a civil attorney with 15 years of experience; she has clerked for the Texas Supreme Court and the 3rd Court of Appeals. If elected, Wooten vows to make mental health resources available to those who come before her and to enforce laws banning gun ownership for those subject to family-violence protective orders. Cantú Hexsel has practiced civil law for 24 years, specializing in health care litigation. She has worked as an assistant state attorney general and belongs to the Hispanic Bar Association.

167th Criminal District Court

David Wahlberg is seeking to continue his service here. In 2015, Wahlberg signed the order that resulted in the first gay marriage in Texas. Before assuming the bench in 2012, he practiced criminal law for 35 years and was a founding member of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He's being challenged by Dayna Blazey, a felony prosecutor with the D.A.'s Office for the past 30 years, who argued the "Condom Rape" case, in which a jury found that the victim's request that her attacker wear a condom didn't mean she had given consent. If elected, Blazey said her top three priorities would be expanding the use of diversion programs; improving indigent defense and supporting a public defender's office; and reviewing the personal recognizance bonds of those who can't afford bail. She notes that the 167th Criminal District Court currently has no diversion program.

200th Civil District Court

Jessica Mangrum and Maggie Ellis are competing to challenge Republican Judge Dustin Howell, an Abbott appointee. Mangrum is a partner at Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, with a focus on construction-­related cases. The first woman in Travis County certified in construction law, she's currently the chair of the city's Building and Standards Commission. Ellis is an unusual candidate. She's handled over 2,000 cases as a lawyer, but says her best asset is her life experience. Abandoned by her mother as a child, she helped raise her sister and took 16 years to work her way through UT. If elected, she'll be the first openly lesbian judge in Travis County and the first to have experienced homelessness.

353rd Civil District Court

Tim Sulak has held the post since 2011; in 2017, he blocked Texas officials from releasing voter data to President Trump's voter fraud commission, citing privacy concerns. In 2018, he upheld the legality of the city's new paid sick leave law when business groups challenged it. Sulak is opposed by Madeleine Connor, who ran as a Democrat for this same position in 2008, losing in the primary. She subsequently ran in the 2012 Republican primary for the 3rd Court of Appeals, campaigning before far-right groups and calling attention to her longtime commitment to conservative principles. In recent years she's filed a string of lawsuits against her neighbors in far West Austin, accusing them of defamation, among other things. After losing the cases she was declared a "vexatious litigant" and forbidden to file similar lawsuits.

390th Criminal District Court

Julie Kocurek has led the court for 20 years. She was the first woman to serve as a criminal district judge in Travis County, but is best known for surviving an assassination attempt in 2015 by a defendant trying to avoid jail. She endured over 30 surgeries related to the attack, then returned to work. Kocurek supports efforts to strengthen courthouse security and indigent defense. This is the first time she's faced a primary challenge and recently took in $60,000 in contributions in a single fundraiser. Challenger Albert Amado is concerned about how social inequality affects the service of justice; he lives in Austin but works in Latin America for the U.S. State Department and the National Center for State Courts, among others.

460th Criminal District Court

Amy Meredith and Selena Alvarenga are running for the chance to face Judge Geoffrey Puryear, another Abbott appointee, in the general election. Meredith is currently the chief of the Public Integrity Unit of the D.A.'s Office, a group that investigates public corruption and white-collar fraud, focusing on recovering misappropriated funds. She waited tables and tended bar to pay her way through law school and rose quickly upon joining the D.A. Alvarenga has worked as a criminal defense attorney for more than 20 years. She is the former presiding director of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and a board member of the Austin Bar LGBTQ Association. She's from El Salva­dor and says she will be the first openly gay Latina judge in Travis County if elected.

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