Judge on Trial

County Court at Law No. 5 Candidates Want Aguilar Out

Wilfred Aguilar

John Cutright

Janet Stockard

It's not a good sign when a judge seeking re-election draws two opponents from his own party - and the challengers don't hedge when asked why they are running against Wilfred Aguilar, the 10-year presiding judge at County Court-at-Law No. 5. Aguilar faces John Cutright and Janet Stockard, both criminal defense attorneys who are running strictly on a platform of No More Aguilar. The two candidates accuse the incumbent of overreaching his power on and off the bench, and they demonstrate their claims in vivid detail. Stockard, for example, launched a TV campaign last weekend that homes in on Aguilar's 1996 arrest on a public intoxication charge. And Cutright, at political functions, pushes copies of the offense report as if they were campaign flyers touting his own accomplishments. It's not a kind and gentle race, that much is certain. In the end, courthouse insiders predict, Aguilar will win the election and Cutright and Stockard will go back to being lawyers who try to avoid having cases heard in his court. All the same, even Aguilar's supporters acknowledge that the race signals a wake-up call for the judge, particularly in light of the well-publicized public intoxication case that wended its way from the city attorney's office to the county attorney's office, and then back to the city, where it never resurfaced - until Aguilar's opponents and TV reporters began asking questions. On Wednesday, the city attorney's office refiled the case in Municipal Court. Aguilar said he will not contest the charge. Did the judge receive special treatment in the first unresolved case, as his opponents suggest? County Attorney Ken Oden doesn't think so, and blames the delay on a bureaucratic blunder. "I see no evidence that he tried to influence what happened," Oden said, adding that Aguilar is the "temporary beneficiary of somebody else's mistake."

The public intoxication charge originated in November 1996 in the parking lot of Tracor, Inc., where a security guard found Aguilar asleep on the trunk of a 1982 Cadillac with the engine running. According to an Austin Police report, Aguilar was disheveled and disoriented, and "smelled strongly of alcohol." Given the circumstances surrounding the case - that Aguilar had been driving the car that unintentionally ended up at Tracor - the county attorney's office tried to bump the charge up to driving while intoxicated. In doing so, the county asked the city to drop the P.I. charge pending an investigation by a grand jury which, as it turned out, no-billed the case on insufficient evidence. The case then went back to the city attorney's to be refiled on the P.I. charge - and was never heard from again.

Apart from the "special treatment" scenario, others suggest that the city disagreed with - some even say balked at - the county's attempts to raise the charge to a DWI - and the whole thing fell apart in an anti-climactic fizzle, the object of a territorial tiff between the two jurisdictions. But of course, neither side will comment on how the turf factor, much less politics, may have figured into the foul-up.

Aguilar, meanwhile, says he has no idea what happened to the charge the first time around. "I've done everything they've asked me to do," he said. "I've never asked for special treatment... I've been waiting for them to refile the case." When that happens, the judge said earlier this week, "I will plead and pay the fine. That's the same thing I would ask of people who appear before me - to accept the consequences of their actions." Even so, Aguilar has a ready defense for his own actions. He says that after drinking that night, he mistakenly took some prescribed medication, thinking it was Tylenol. He said the medication and the alcohol created a "synergistic effect," exacerbating the alcohol's effects. It should be noted that Aguilar, who served out a probation on a 1975 DWI conviction, has admitted to a drinking problem. He said that after the 1975 conviction he didn't touch a drop for 20 years, but began drinking again during a period of personal crisis. "I immediately got into counseling right after that incident," he said of his most recent arrest. Asked if he stopped drinking immediately after the arrest, Aguilar replied, "It's been quite a while."

Despite this negativity factor, Aguilar, 49, has won nearly all of the endorsements he has solicited from Democratic organizations and professional groups, including an overwhelming 86% win in the county bar poll. The legal community, on the other hand, doesn't regard Stockard and Cutright as serious contenders. The two have generated only small bases of support, but that makes them no less committed to unseating Aguilar. The judge's support from lawyers may be based as much on bread and butter issues as it is on wholehearted loyalty. Attorneys who practice in Aguilar's court, after all, don't need a "no" vote hanging over their heads when they seek out a favorable ruling for their client.

"The defense bar supports him because he lets cases sit - that's how attorneys make their money," said Stockard, a practicing lawyer for 25 years. While Stockard has taken some knocks for mounting a campaign against Aguilar, she insists that her intentions are noble. She cites a backlog of cases that have languished in Aguilar's court, despite a local rule that judges must dispose of misdemeanor cases within 200 days. "This is why I don't have the rank and file supporting me," she said, "because I'm not afraid to stand up and speak my mind."

One Austin resident, Ted Kennett, contacted Stockard after reading about the County Court No. 5 race in last Sunday's election guide in the Austin American-Statesman. He said he offered to help Stockard based on his experience as a witness to a public exposure incident in September 1995 in North Central Austin. "I have been subpoenaed to testify at least 10 times and each time the case has been postponed at the request of the defense attorney," Kennett told the Chronicle this week. "The last time I got completely irritated and started asking questions about what the law was on these cases. I was told that they're supposed to have them taken care of within 200 days. Now we're approaching 1,000 days and this guy is out walking around - maybe even groping, grabbing, and raping."

Cutright and Stockard have other "evidence" to demonstrate Aguilar's flaws. One document, which they obtained under an open records request, is a handwritten statement by Aguilar's former court reporter, who asserts she was fired unjustly, the victim of sex discrimination. Aguilar denies the claim and says he can't discuss the "personnel matters" surrounding her dismissal. Only one other attorney, Sylvia Sanders, was willing to speak on the record about her experiences with Aguilar. She recalled one incident in which her client had a jury trial "and I had a trial by fire" in Aguilar's court. "It really doesn't matter how he treats me - I'm a big girl and I can stand the stress," she said. "But when he treats me this way my client doesn't get a fair trial." To that, Aguilar responded, "I may have been impatient in terms of being emphatic in my rulings. But I've never been rude to anyone in the courtroom."

Many attorneys - including Mary Kay Sicola and Betty Blackwell - are quick to defend the judge and commend him on his fairness, particularly toward indigent and mentally ill defendants who appear in his court. And Blackwell says that many defense attorneys prefer practicing in Aguilar's court because he's not afraid to suppress questionable police evidence against their clients. "It's just sad to me that he pulled these opponents," Blackwell said.

Of the two challengers, Stockard is considered the stronger of the two candidates. She has plenty of name identification going for her, due to her years of marketing her law practice on television. She has come to be recognized for the various hats she wears, a trademark established long ago when she sought to differentiate herself from the small pool of women lawyers who were practicing in Austin in the early Seventies. Stockard, 49, is running an out-of-pocket campaign while she continues her law practice full time. She is a founding member of the Travis County Women Lawyers and a sister group of women trial lawyers, and served as president of both organizations. A University of Texas law school graduate, Stockard is also active in the Travis County Democratic Party. At political forums, Stockard has tried to steer more toward her own accomplishments and less on Aguilar. She is considered thoughtful and competent by her supporters, who also concede that her lack of campaign resources and backing from the legal community are not likely to work in her favor on election day.

Cutright, 62, has been more vocal in his arguments against Aguilar's re-election. A former instructor at San Antonio College, Cutright got his law degree under a three-year apprenticeship under another attorney. He has also been a legislative assistant and a committee clerk in the Texas House of Representatives. He has served on the Austin Airport Task Force, is a former treasurer of Allandale Neighborhood Association, and has been active in parent-teacher associations.

Aguilar, should he win the Democratic primary as predicted, faces no Republican opposition in November. That's a comforting thought for an incumbent who, for better or worse, is likely to view the world from the bench a little differently after this election year.

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