The Austin Chronicle

A Rather Unjudicious Race

By Amy Smith, February 6, 2004, News

When the business of politics turns personal, even judicial races can fall short on judiciousness. Such is the case with the contest to fill the open 200th District Court bench that Judge Paul Davis will vacate at the end of the year. With no Republicans vying for the seat, voters have their pick of three qualified candidates in the Democratic primary: John Hathaway, an associate district court judge and advocate of victims of family violence; Jan Soifer, a lawyer with 20 years of civil litigation and consumer protection experience; and Gisela Triana, a court-at-law judge with 10 years of bench experience in municipal and county courts.

Triana is the easily identifiable front-runner and is expected to have captured the largest share of endorsements by the time early voting starts on Feb. 23. Criticism of Triana's candidacy typically has less to do with her abilities than it does the political fast track she has traveled to get from there to here. In every competitive race she has run – this is her third – she finds herself defending her heady aspirations, which have been compared to state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's history of abandoning unexpired posts when something better comes along. "What's wrong with being ambitious?" asks Triana, the daughter of Cuban exiles from Castro's Sixties regime. "I started at the bottom and worked my way up." She wonders why women more than men are criticized for their ambitions. "I don't think a man under the same circumstances, with 10 years of judicial experience, would be criticized."

Triana's hurry to get somewhere started long before she set her sights on a judgeship. She graduated from high school at 16, sped through college, and graduated from the UT School of Law when she was 22. While Strayhorn switched parties and became a Republican, Triana started out as a Republican and became a Democrat. Voting records show she last voted in a GOP primary in 1990, when Clayton Williams became the Republicans' pick to run against Ann Richards.

But clearly the more critical eye has been cast on Soifer, who is Triana's most formidable opponent. Her campaign has been in defensive mode ever since she volunteered to political consultant David Butts (whom she was seeking to hire, and who was later hired by Triana's campaign) that she had worked on the Republican side in the litigation that arose after the state Legislative Redistricting Board redrew the Texas House and Senate maps in 2001. The LRB's GOP-friendly handiwork created Republican majorities in the House and Senate, which in turn led to the congressional redistricting mess in 2003. "We had just had our head handed to us by the Legislature," Butts recalled of his conversation with Soifer last summer. "So none of this was particularly pleasing to me." He turned Soifer down for the job.

The state (Gov. Rick Perry et al.) turned to the conservative Houston-based law firm of Locke Liddell & Sapp to defend the LRB's maps in a series of lawsuits. Soifer, at the time a partner based in the Austin office, was assigned to work with lead attorney Andy Taylor on the case. As Soifer tells it, she was in no position to reject the work; she had an empty docket at the time, having just completed four weeks of litigation on another case. "It was the first assignment I had where I wasn't the lead counsel," she said. The second-chair position allowed her to do much of the work from her father's bedside in a Houston hospital.

Soifer says her three-month assignment dealt solely with pretrial procedural work. Any strategic planning she was involved in, she says, was in no way political, and she denies accusations that she participated in any map or line-drawing effort. "It was clear to everyone that I was not involved in the politics. I wear my Democratic stripes on my sleeve. Every lawyer there knew exactly where I was coming from politically. ... If I had ever been forced ... to get involved in the politics of those cases, I would have walked in a minute." Soifer points to supporters like Tommy Jacks – one of the lawyers hired by the Democratic Party to fight the redistricting – to bear out the fact that she did nothing to compromise her Dem credentials. "I despise what the Republicans did," she says. "What Tom DeLay and Rick Perry did was dreadfully contrary to the interests of our state." Attorney Jacks said: "I have absolutely no doubt that Jan is a rock-solid Democrat. She did her work responsibly, and I never took that to mean she's a closet Republican."

The back-and-forth between the Soifer and Triana campaigns could turn out to be the best thing to happen to Hathaway, the underdog in the race. But Hathaway's camp is also accused of helping stir up the muck on the two leading ladies, with the idea that one of them will get bumped in the primary and Hathaway will advance to a run-off. In an interview, however, Hathaway declined to discuss his opponents. What the associate judge lacks in name ID he's been able to make up for in fundraising. As of the last reporting, he had raised $112,900, placing second to Soifer's $123,600. Triana, the last to enter the race, reported $51,000 in contributions.

The civil district courts handle a wide range of cases, but Hathaway views the higher post as an opportunity to pick up where former District Judge Scott McCown left off – speaking out for victims of child abuse and family violence and for the poor and downtrodden. Indeed, Hathaway, known for his plainspoken written opinions, enjoys wide support from advocates and other lawyers. At least one defense attorney, however, claims that Hathaway too often sides with the state on abuse and neglect cases, even when evidence suggests that extenuating circumstances contributed to the situation. "He just comes unglued," the attorney said.

The Travis Co. Bar Association has also weighed in on this race, not with endorsements but with the following poll results: Soifer (a former president of the group), 47% with 372 votes; Triana, 28%, 225 votes; and Hathaway, 25%, 195 votes.

In Other Judicial Races ...

Patrick Keel's name ID and financial might will be put to the test in November when he'll face one of two Democratic candidates hoping to unseat him in the 345th District Court. Keel, the lone Republican in the county's civil district courts, was Gov. Rick Perry's appointee in December 2002 to fill the unexpired term of former Judge Scott McCown. He's the brother of Austin state Rep. Terry Keel, also a Republican.

County Democratic leaders are uncertain if the Dems will be able to reclaim this seat, as Keel, who scored highest in the Travis Co. bar poll, is expected to build a substantial war chest for the November match. He is better liked within the legal and political world than other recent Republican appointees to the Travis Co. bench, like Ernest Garcia and Frank Bryan, who were dumped by voters in favor of Dems as soon as they got the chance. Garcia, incidentally, is running as a "proven conservative" against Jan Patterson, the Democratic incumbent on the 3rd Court of Appeals.

The favorite to win the Democratic nomination appears to be Stephen Yelenosky, legal director of Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit that lobbies for and represents Texans with disabilities. Yelenosky has devoted most of his legal career to nonprofit work and public service, and the Liveable City board member enjoys a cross section of support from liberal progressives. Richard Anton, a civil litigator and family lawyer, is making his third bid for an elected office, having last run for a justice of the peace seat in 1998.

Further down the ballot, three Democratic hopefuls are vying for the County Court at Law No. 5 bench vacated by Gisela Triana. The lineup includes Efrain De La Fuente, who grew up in a family of migrant workers and went on to become a prosecutor in the infamous yogurt-shop murder case; Nancy Hohengarten, a criminal defense attorney; and Leonard Ray Saenz, an associate judge for the Travis Co. Truancy Court. All three are former assistant DAs. Hohengarten, the favorite in the bar poll, enjoys a who's who list of supporters and is expected to win most of the Democratic club endorsements, which started in earnest this week. Saenz, however, won the endorsements of the Austin Tejano Democrats, the South Austin Tejano Dems, and the Black Women's Political Caucus. The winner in the Democratic primary will face Republican Angelita Mendoza-Waterhouse in November.

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