Temper, Temperament

Emotions v. Experience in 261st Dist. Court Race

Lora Livingston

Karen Parker

Two ambitious judicial hopefuls - Karen Parker and Lora Livingston - hail from distinctly different professional backgrounds. So it stands to reason that both candidates are trying to parlay those differences into a Democratic nomination for the 261st District Court bench. Parker and Livingston square off in the March 10 primary, while John Drolla, a lawyer who handles commercial real estate and other business transactions, is running unopposed on the Republican ballot, and will face the Democratic winner in the November general election. Since neither side of the 147th District Court race is being contested - Democratic incumbent Judge Wilford Flowers will face Republican Marian Bloss in November - district court watchers have only to focus on the rapidly approaching March bout between Parker and Livingston. The particulars in this race aren't exactly headline-grabbers, but they do boil down to a couple of pertinent issues: experience, and the question of which candidate has the judicial temperament necessary for the job.

Parker, a UT law school graduate, spent the early part of her career forging new ground in the mid-Seventies when women trial attorneys were rare birds at docket call. She has spent the last 19 years with the downtown firm of Wright & Greenhill, resigning only recently to devote herself full time to this campaign. However, Parker still occupies an of-counsel presence at the firm - in much smaller quarters but with a no less generous view from the 17th floor corner office in the Bank One building. Over her 23-year law career, Parker has handled literally thousands of legal matters, representing both plaintiffs and defendants, in the types of wide-ranging civil cases that are heard in the 261st District Court. "I'm the only candidate with substantial trial experience," she says. "My opponent doesn't have district court experience. Being an associate judge handling family law cases doesn't qualify someone to be a judge in a court that hears such a broad range of cases."

While Parker volunteers that she is by nature an introvert, she isn't shy about taking frequent whacks at her opponent's involvement in a number of community activities. "If you don't try a lot of lawsuits and don't have a family, you can join everything in the world," she says.

Livingston, 40, doesn't dispute that Parker has more experience going for her, but she chalks that up to the fact that Parker, at 51, has been practicing law longer. For the last three years, Livingston has been an associate judge in district court, a position to which she was appointed by the 13 judges who make up the county's district court system. As one of four associate judges, Livingston presides over family law, delinquent tax, and juvenile cases. "For every case Karen Parker has tried, I've handled hundreds of decisions as a judge," Livingston says. "I've tried a fair number of cases, but I don't think that having tried a lot of cases necessarily qualifies you to be judge. Being a judge requires so much more than that - such as temperament - and I believe my temperament is well-suited for this position."

Livingston and her supporters have been pushing the temperament question as a campaign issue. That's because Parker's demeanor on the campaign trail has been on the emotional side. While pleasant and even-tempered in every other sense, Parker somehow manages to transform herself into an angry candidate on the offensive when she speaks at political forums - and Livingston has walked away with most of the ensuing endorsements. While Parker has toned down her delivery in more recent appearances, her earlier presentations have made long-lasting impressions. "When Karen gets up there and starts waving her arms around and pointing her finger at Lora - that's a little much," observed one political consultant. Clearly Livingston, by contrast, has more of a woman-of-the-people feel to her, and she genuinely seems to enjoy the glad-handing that goes with the business of running for public office. Her popularity among lawyers paid off in the recent Travis County Bar Association poll, with Livingston collecting 540 votes to Parker's 298. Drolla, the Republican contender for the job, got 88 votes.

Livingston, an African-American, enjoys a broad base of support county-wide, as well as strong backing from Austin's white liberal voters. Having grown up in Los Angeles, Livingston graduated from UCLA Law School in 1982 and landed her first job as a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellow assigned to Austin, working for the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas. In 1988, she moved on to private practice, where she handled general civil cases until her 1995 appointment to the associate judge's post.

"I love being a judge," Livingston says. "It's more fun than being an advocate. It's a way for me to make a contribution by taking a problem and trying to fashion a result, a resolution." Taking issue with Parker's knock at her community involvement, Livingston credits her activities with helping her form relationships with people of different cultures and life experiences. "I think it's important to participate in group activities," she says. "A good lawyer doesn't just become a member of a club, a good lawyer participates." Livingston is active with the Austin Area Urban League, the Austin Symphony, and the Austin Tenants Council, to name a few. She has also staffed a statewide legal hotline for the Women's Advocacy Project, and was named Outstanding Attorney in 1992 by the Travis County Women Lawyers' Association.

Whether Livingston's community involvement or Parker's law experience will pay off is a tough one to call. With a low turnout predicted, voters will be the judge on this one.

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