331st District Judge: A Matter of Opinion
What's a judge's job?
David Crain currently presides over the 331st District Court, one of nine felony courts in Travis County. He's been on that bench since 2011, and in the county's justice system since 1985, when he was elected Justice of the Peace in Precinct 5. Since then, he's spent time at all three levels of the local criminal system, including a lengthy stint in CCL 3, where he played a considerable role in developing the misdemeanor court's mental health docket. Crain brought that docket to the district level when he took over Bob Perkins' court, but no longer does much with it. "That's been assigned to our magistrate, Leon Grizzard," said Crain. "When we have a trial, it goes all week. ... We start Monday morning at 9 o'clock. It's emotional. Somebody got shot in the head, and their family is sitting there. ... I can't stop" to run a weekly docket.
His opponent, indigent defense attorney Chantal Eldridge, believes that's nonsense, frankly, and has pledged not only to bring the mental health docket up to the felony level, but also the Phoenix Court program, for people with a history of prostitution or trafficking. "Sometimes people have so much that has happened to them that they're scared of getting help," she said. "I love that program because it's one of the only specialty courts that actually provides [supportive] housing resources. And most of my clients need housing." (Eldridge ran for the 450th District Court in 2016 and lost to Brad Urrutia.)
That standoff has turned this race into somewhat of a referendum on how much a judge actually works, an issue on the minds of many criminal defense attorneys, but also on that of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who's been collecting data this winter. And indeed, both candidates have played their part. Crain emphasizes the need for methodical care of trials (numbers vary based on who's providing them, including Crain and court administration, but he holds around 10 per year), pre-trial proceedings, and the legal minutiae that comes across a judge's desk. Eldridge, meanwhile, considers leading on criminal justice reform to be one of two parts of the job, and her experience as a defense attorney a benefit. "We're the ones at the courthouse, seeing defendants, seeing what issues are driving people into the system," she said.
Crain disagrees: "What we've evolved to is a situation where if you say those buzz words, you're going to get a response. If you're in office and trying to fix a problem, you have to figure out what the problem is, how to approach it, get input from your colleagues and staff. I hear them all, but I don't really know what they mean by 'criminal justice reform.' They say, 'We're going to release people from jail.' There's already been 2,000 people released on personal bond this year. It sort of works its way out."
Clearly they're comfortable in their differences of opinion. So what is the responsibility of a district-level criminal judge?