Judicial candidates weigh influence of partisanship in 353rd
With just weeks to go before election day, Tim Sulak, who is running for judge in Travis County's 353rd Civil District Court, was ready to make his last big fundraising push on a weekday evening at a stately bash at Sullivan's. The campaign had reserved the Ringside bar for an intimate show featuring Austin's ubiquitous Ray Benson crooning alongside young jazz singer Kat Edmonson. It was a good ticket and brought a packed house. After Congressman Lloyd Doggett introduced him to the crowd of local politicos and many of the most stalwart of the courthouse crowd, Sulak took the stage to address the group: He needs their continued support, he told them – particularly in word-of-mouth exchanges (and on Facebook) to help ensure that voters know who to choose for the 353rd, a race that's "way down the ballot," he said. In fact, he noted, "a lot of people don't even know" that they'll be asked to vote in a local judicial race in this election cycle.
The race for the 353rd is the only contested district court race on the local ballot. In the all-blue Travis County Courthouse, conventional wisdom has it that Sulak is a shoo-in. But Sulak isn't buying that. He's pushing hard into the homestretch. That's probably not a bad idea for a couple of reasons: His opponent, Republican Jeff Rose, has been in the seat for about a year and has incumbency status, and, as Sulak joked onstage at the Ringside, Rose's name is "easy to pronounce and easy to spell." Plus, he said with a laugh, there are other folks with the same name (think Dripping Springs Dem Rep. Patrick Rose) who many Dems know and like.
All joking aside, Sulak has raised the lion's share of money in the race – he has $122,597 on hand, according to the last pre-election filing – but Rose took in more during the last collection period than did Sulak, with $30,294 in contributions, to Sulak's $16,250. Travis County Republicans' ability to push Rose over the top seems improbable but not impossible, especially if Rose can earn any meaningful crossover support.
Party affiliation aside, voters will face a ballot with two well-qualified local judicial candidates. Sulak, a West native who's been in Austin for nearly 40 years (he says he grew up in West but "grew up with Austin"), has been practicing law at the county courthouse for more than three decades. The calm and easygoing lawyer has done mostly plaintiff's work but says that isn't a drawback. Just because he hasn't represented defendants with a "line-item budget for legal expenses" doesn't mean that he doesn't understand the complexities of litigating a civil case from either side of the bar. "I have dealt with all kinds of complexities in my cases," he says. "Although I haven't defended clients, I have to understand what they do and where they are coming from," he continues. "I have handled very complex legal matters and have to counsel clients on the strengths and weaknesses" of both sides of each case. His ability to synthesize these things, he believes, is "part of the success of my practice."
In contrast, Rose, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry last year after the untimely death of Democratic Judge Scott Ozmun, has spent plenty of time litigating from each side of the fence – and a good bit of his experience comes from six years in the Texas Office of Attorney General, under Greg Abbott, where he oversaw first the general litigation division and then the consumer protection division. "There is a huge range of work" done at the A.G.'s Office, says Rose, an affable 41-year-old. "It's like a giant law firm representing the state." During his time at the office, he says, he "developed a passion" for consumer protection cases, for which he has acted as a plaintiff's attorney in any number of actions. "I would get up in the morning and read the paper and see what was going on. I'd see stories that would make me think, 'Gee, the state should be doing something about this,'" he says, to "protect Texans."
Both attorneys agree that litigation can be a long, complicated, and stressful process for clients and that getting to the point of resolution – bringing the parties to court to be heard by a judge or jury – is the most rewarding part of it. And, in a similar way, that appreciation has informed their views of what it means to be a judge. As Sulak puts it: "Courts have to offer [all parties] a dignified and respectful forum for everyone to enter into and come out of with an appreciation that even if they didn't prevail, that they had a fair opportunity to be heard."
Rose says he has enjoyed his time on the bench and the campaign trail, regardless of what happens next month. (Rose is easy with a joke. He says his children have developed a game, akin to the old Volkswagen "punch-bug" game, for spotting his campaign signs around town. "I've locked down the 6-to-10 demographic," he says. "I'm big with the Cub Scout set.") He knows the courthouse can be a tough place for a member of the Travis County GOP to stay on the bench (there are no Republican judges in the county courthouse) and says he laments the fact that Texas selects its judges in partisan races, "because we all want judges who will apply the law ... without being political and without being personal."
Sulak agrees that partisan judicial races are a challenge, and he certainly agrees that party affiliation doesn't "matter in the sense of deciding individual cases." But he does think there is something to be said for having a sense of what sort of worldview informs a candidate. "While judges are required to maintain objectivity and some distance in the process, we also have to have the benefit of their life experience and perspective," he says.
Running for this seat in particular is meaningful to Sulak, he says, because he counted Ozmun among his close friends, "and his death left a big void for us all." Ozmun's death went into Sulak's decision to run this year: "A good friend with a parallel career to mine and after having done this work for 32 years," he decided it was time to make the move, he says.
Rose, meanwhile, believes that he's done a good job on the bench and has taken the time to learn what he can in order to improve where possible (including a fair amount of studying family law, with which he says he didn't have much experience but which has taken up a fair amount of his time on the bench). As for his chances in the general election, he's taking a wait-and-see approach: "I work to control the things I can control, and I don't worry about the rest," he says. "Politics end at the courthouse door."