The People's Court

Justice of the Peace Races Not So Peaceful

It doesn't take long to figure out which of the three races for Justice of the Peace will be the least peaceful. The Democratic battle for Precinct 5 - between criminal defense attorney Herb Evans and associate municipal court judge Gisela Triana - is the one to watch for fireworks. No Republicans bothered to enter that fight, but a whopping four of them are taking aim at swing-vote territory of Pct. 2, which Justice of the Peace Jan Breland vacated to run for County Court at Law #6. And three Republicans have seen fit to try to knock Democratic incumbent J.P. Scott Davis off his Pct. 3 perch. Just what do Justices of the Peace do? A justice of the peace, according to Webster's Dictionary, is "...a local public officer, usually having jurisdiction to try and determine minor civil and criminal cases, and to hold preliminary examinations of persons accused of more serious crimes, and having authority to administer oaths, solemnize marriages, etc."

Try and pass those off as defining characteristics to most of the dozen Austin J.P. candidates, and much more articulate descriptions ensue. In short, Travis County's five justices of the peace constitute the lowest level of the county court system above the municipal level. For the average citizen, the J.P. level is often the first, and for many the only, experience with the justice system they'll ever have; hence the nickname "the people's court." That's because citizens - without shelling out any fees - can appear before J.P.s without a lawyer, to ask for decisions on a wide range of civil and criminal matters involving small claims court, justice court, and administrative hearings. J.P.s cover plenty of legal territory throughout their tenure - running the gamut from hearing lawsuits over unlawful towing to holding school truancy trials, conducting hearings concerning animal abuse, and performing marriage ceremonies. For Precincts 2, 3, and 5, voters must decide who will best handle the county's busiest courtrooms during the next four years.

Up Close and Personal

Precinct 5 Democratic candidates Herb Evans and Gisela Triana
photographs by John Anderson

The Pct. 5 J.P. race is considered the county's most critical from many perspectives. It's the only precinct that lies entirely within the city of Austin; consequently, the precinct's civil docket is much busier than in other precincts, says outgoing J.P. Jade Meeker, and that makes the court unique for several reasons. Legislation has given judges jurisdiction in this precinct to hear cases not normally brought to other courts, including all student loan disputes and landlord/tenant cases. Civil cases are also becoming more complex, she says, now that parties appearing before the court are increasingly involving attorneys in their disputes.

Only Triana and Evans are running for this seat, since no Republicans bothered to file in the Democratic urban stronghold. Both Democrats are hitting the campaign trail hard, and both offer very different campaign styles. While Associate Municipal Judge Triana has admitted she sees the J.P. position as an eventual path to higher office, criminal defense attorney Evans has made it clear that he is seeking the seat for its own sake. "I want to do this job, and I want to do it well," he says. "I'm not trying to maneuver. [Triana] is trying to fatten her resumé."

By casting himself as a "rough around the edges political outsider," and Triana as a polished political positioner, Evans may have hit pay dirt. Some key political clubs in Pct. 5 have endorsed Evans, including the West Austin Democrats, the Central Austin Democrats, the University Democrats, and the Travis County Democratic Women. One club leader explains that Triana "is aggressively ambitious on behalf of her own career, and I think she reluctantly decided to settle for running for this seat... Evans, on the other hand, has no ambition to go further."

For her part, Triana doesn't apologize for being politically ambitious, but she is just as adamant that she is running for J.P. "because I want to be J.P." She adds that she is wary of someone who just wants to stay indefinitely in that position - where's the incentive for doing a good job and advancing because of excellent performance? Triana does say that for many Hispanics, the J.P. court is a good way for someone to begin moving up the judicial ladder, adding that the variety of experience the job provides is invaluable for advancing in the judicial ranks to such positions as the state Supreme Court. "I don't think we should penalize people for being ambitious," she says.

Precinct 3 Republican candidates Jeff Casey and Lee Bergeron, and Democratic incumbent Scott Davis. Not pictured: Republican candidate Mark Parker Hughes-Bass.
Evans, a 26-year veteran as a criminal defense attorney, may have won key club endorsements in Pct. 5, as well as the Travis County Officers' Association and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, but Triana has the backing of a slew of progressive leaders and groups, including the Austin AFL-CIO, the Austin Women's Political Caucus, the South Austin Democrats, the Austin United Democrats, the Austin Tejano Democrats, the Capital Area Progressive Democrats, Dianne Hardy-Garcia of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby, and environmentalists Bill Bunch, Brigid Shea, and Mary Arnold.

But Evans chalks all that up to what he calls Triana's "top-down" approach to the office. He says that her connections - some through her past romantic relationship with County Attorney Ken Oden - have no doubt helped her, but that his own grassroots politicking will come through in the end. "I am walking and knocking on doors in nearly every voting precinct in Precinct 5," he says. One of his campaign signs even pictures a big shoeprint with the motto "Herb Evans Walked This Neighborhood."

Triana refutes Evans' claim on the grassroots. "You can knock on doors, but that doesn't mean people support you. I've got a wide range of support - from many different ethnic groups, women's groups, gays and lesbians, African Americans, Hispanics, environmentalists," Triana says. "I am the progressive, grassroots candidate... Most of Evans' support comes from other criminal defense attorneys and bail bondsmen he works with."

In his literature and in public forums, Evans has also made an issue of the contrast between his humble personal background and that of his more well-to-do opponent's. "I've had to work hard to make my way all my life," Evans says, in an obvious reference to Triana's family wealth. "My father didn't buy me a new Mercedes every year." Triana replies that her father never bought her a car, she has never owned a new car, and that she has supported herself as a working attorney for the past 10 years. "I worked a minimum wage job while at UT," she says. "Does that sound like somebody whose parents support her?"

Triana is going after Evans as well. On Wednesday, a Triana supporter filed a complaint against Evans with the Texas Ethics Commission for failure to file his campaign's Contributions and Expenses report, which was due on February 9. A petition for a writ of mandamus was also filed against Evans in Travis County District Court for Evans' failure to disclose his personal financial statement as required by law.

Evans responds that it's "quite possible" that he missed the deadlines. "I'm guilty," he shrugs. "I'm pretty much running my own campaign and I'm not slick about these things. If [J.P.] Jade Meeker wants to fine me for it, I'll pay it."

Triana says, "I think it's odd that someone who is running for a position in which he will be judging other people is not able to follow the law himself."

As for their professional backgrounds, Triana points out that unlike Evans, she is an experienced judge, having served part-time on the municipal bench since 1994 while carrying on a civil law practice simultaneously. That, she says, is an important duality - dealing with criminal law on the bench and civil law in her practice - that Evans lacks. But Evans scoffs at the notion that Triana's relatively short legal career of 10 years compares to his. While he's done mostly criminal law in his 26 years as an attorney, he says, "I've tried more civil cases than she's even thought about." And while he may never have been a judge, he is a trained mediator, and was a hearings examiner for the Texas Air Control Board. After law school, Evans first worked as a staff attorney in 1971 at the state senate before going into private practice.

Evans touts his co-creation in 1978 of the Austin Family Mediation Association as a major step toward supporting interpersonal problems in the justice system. The "ability to deal with people" is one of his strongest goals for a court that he says has traditionally lacked mediation services. As for Triana's time on the bench, he says, "She makes a big deal of her judging experience, but understand that she is a part-time relief judge."

While Triana's rich family has been suspect, so have her past Republican tendencies. While Evans has made an issue of it, claiming Triana's switch is another indication of her tendency to make politically expedient choices, Triana says she officially changed her outlook on government in 1990. "Tarzan was raised by apes," she says. "I was raised by Republicans."

Ripe for Republicans

Precinct 2 has become a favorite GOP target this year. Four years ago, Democrat Janet Breland barely squeaked by with a win against an unknown challenger, so the sole Democrat in the race, attorney Richard Anton, will have his work cut out for him when he takes on the victor of next month's Republican primary. The four GOP contenders here are attorney Barbara Bembry, Advanced Micro Devices engineer Nathan Zook, Northwest Austin neighborhood leader Laurin Currie, and political consultant Elisa Angel. Bembry, who practices civil and criminal law, looks to be the powerhouse in the race. The only other lawyer in the race is Northwest Austin neighborhood leader Currie. As has been his style in the last three races he has entered (and lost) - J.P., city council, and county commissioner - Currie is not spending much on the campaign. There are no signs or literature out, but Currie, who did not return phone calls from the Chronicle, does have name ID through his civic and neighborhood service. As for Angel, although she lists herself as a political consultant, few connected to the race have ever heard of her, and she failed to return repeated phone calls from the Chronicle.

Zook, on the other hand, does have a strong connection to Republican clubs in which he's been active, and, with his Christian right reputation, a wide appeal among conservatives. However, Bembry says that Zook's lack of any legal background would ill serve the constituents of Pct. 2. With 25,000 new cases expected to be filed in the court this year alone, Bembry insists that citizens have no time to wait on someone lacking court experience. "That is a signal that a practicing attorney should take the bench," she says. "There's no time for on-the-job law school."

Zook replies that he, too, is a strong believer in an efficient docket. But he challenges any notion that a lawyer would better solve a poorly functioning justice court. Zook partly attributes the court "mess" to a general detachment of the government from the people, making his reasons for running more ideological in nature. His outspokenness against the loaded and often slow-running court makes him more representative of the people who file cases, than of the lawyers who sometimes represent them, he believes. Because of that, Zook maintains that a law degree does not simply make one a viable candidate - listening to the people does.

Who Needs Lawyers?

The lawyer debate takes on a different meaning in Pct. 3 where incumbent Scott Davis has long reigned. Non-lawyer Davis believes he's living proof that the judgeship does not necessarily need a lawyer, pointing out that less than 10% of Texas J.P.s hold law degrees. It's been a recent trend that mostly those with lawyerly backgrounds have applied and emphasized their judicial degrees. Davis was elected in 1988 after working in various governmental capacities, including head of the client services department at the state attorney general's office, and an assistant to then-Congressman Jim Mattox. Although his background is in education and the social sciences, Davis points out that he has disposed of more cases per capita in his precinct than any other J.P. in the county. While his detractors believe a lawyer should handle the job, Davis says he has received strong support from lawyers in this latest bid. And the recent bar poll results, which show that local lawyers overwhelmingly support Davis, attest to his popularity among his more legally educated peers.

Richard Anton is the lone Democrat running for Precinct 2. Barbara Bambry wants to be the Precinct's first Republican J.P. Not pictured: Republican candidates Nathan Zook, Elisa Angel and Laurin Currie.

"People didn't think I could do the job. I didn't think anything about it and I did it," says Davis, adding that his opponents "want to make issue of the fact that I'm not a lawyer, and I hope they do."

Davis does not have an opponent in the primary, but three Republicans have lined up to make a go of it: attorney Jeff Casey, non-practicing attorney Mary Parker Hughes-Bass, and Lee Bergeron, who has been incognito in this race, and did not return phone calls from this reporter. Predictably, Casey is making a big deal of his lawyer credentials, especially with Austin's continued population growth, and the need to know how to follow the law in diverse situations. "A J.P. who is not a lawyer would be great if there are 3,200 living in the county," he says. "In the area where there is a growing population, people arrive at different ways to settle their disputes." Hughes-Bass, although she is a nurse and not a practicing attorney, regularly assists her husband, attorney Ray Bass, in jury selection for both civil and criminal cases at the county level. Hughes-Bass earned her law degree from Western State University in Fullerton, Calif, in 1983, following two generations of judges in her family. She does not disagree that a lawyer might be the best candidate for the job, but says she feels that the post really needs someone who has had real life experiences.

"The majority of people come into contact with the judicial system through the justice court," says Hughes-Bass. "Maturity and life experience are really what it needs."

So while the attorney vs. non-attorney debate rages on in Precincts 2 and 3, what constitutes the most interesting element may be the likelihood of one of these J.P. seats going to a Republican for the first time in history. Meanwhile, Democrats Triana and Evans battle it out in Pct. 5, in a race that will surely become even nastier and more personal as March 10 approaches.

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