Balancing the Scales of Justice on Texas’ Most Important Courts

For the first time in years, Dems are running en masse for statewide judicial seats


A strange sensation – hope – pervades the Texas Democratic Party this year and has resulted in something not seen since the mid-1990s: contested primaries for nominations to the state's two high courts. "We're seeing unprecedented amounts of candidates running," said Glen Maxey, the party's primary director. "And this time, we're doing it without having to twist arms or reach out to unqualified candidates. The candidates we have are qualified, diverse, and ready to take on Republicans."

It's been over 20 years since a Democrat has held a seat on either the Texas Supreme Court or the Court of Criminal Appeals. The mantra of many of the judicial candidates in 2020? Let's bring "balance" to Texas' high courts. To that end, there are four contested Democratic primaries for Supreme Court seats, and two for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

It’s been over 20 years since a Democrat has held a seat on either the Texas Supreme Court or the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Texas Supreme Court

• Chief Justice: "Even the skeptics agree that this is our best opportunity to win statewide in 25 years," said Amy Clark Meachum, campaigning for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. An Austin-based jurist looking to move up, Meachum has served almost 10 years as judge of Texas' 201st District Court. She is in the mold that's beginning to define the 21st century Texas Demo­cratic candidate: young, progressive, and a capable fundraiser. On Jan. 15, Meachum reported raising $139,370 from over 300 donations, a big number and the highest total of any Democratic candidate for the judiciary this year. Her primary opponent is Jerry Zimmerer, first elected to the Harris County 14th Court of Appeals in 2018 after a career as a managing member of Zimmerer & Associates and a senior project manager with AT&T Mobility.

• Place 6: Larry Praeger is traveling the state in his bid for a seat on the Court. Recent Facebook posts show him in Hico and Big Spring. Praeger has practiced law in Dallas since 1988, specializing in family law and criminal law. Kathy Cheng is traveling too, vowing to visit all 254 counties. She ran for this same position in 2018, receiving 46% of the vote in the general election. She's had a private practice in Houston for the last 18 years doing estate planning, probate litigation, commercial litigation, and other kinds of law.

• Place 7 features Staci Williams and Brandy Voss. Williams has served on the 101st Civil District Court since 2014. Before that she was a trial attorney, an arbitrator, and a municipal court judge. She's active in the Dallas community, serving on various boards and committees and supporting the North Texas Volunteer Center, the African American Museum, and other causes. Voss has spent the last few years as an appellate attorney in the Rio Grande Valley and has experience as a staff attorney for the 13th Court of Appeals. She's also raised quite a bit of money: $100,696.

• Place 8: Another experienced Austinite looking to move up is Gisela Triana. She won a seat on the 3rd Court of Appeals over Gov. Greg Abbott's choice for the position in 2018, part of the Democratic sweep of four court races that year that has contributed to the current optimism. She's second only to Meachum in donations, with $100,970. If she gets through the primary, she will again challenge an Abbott appointee, this time Brett Busby. Triana's primary opponent, Peter Kelly, has been a justice on the 1st Court of Appeals since 2018. Prior to that, he was a founding partner of Kelly, Durham & Pittard LLP, a highly regarded firm with offices in Houston, Dallas, and Santa Fe.

Court of Criminal Appeals

CCA Place 3 has attracted three Demo­crat­ic candidates. Dan Wood, a trial and appellate attorney for 32 years, vows to work toward ending the disparity in rates of incarceration for minorities and to conduct fair reviews of death penalty cases (something the Court of Criminal Appeals is not known for). Elizabeth Davis Frizell is a former Dallas County Criminal Court judge who narrowly lost the primary for Dallas district attorney in 2018. William Pieratt Demond of Houston describes himself as a "constitutional rights attorney." On the GOP side of the ballot, Bert Richardson is the vote for the status quo, having served in the position since 2014. His challenger is Gina Parker, an attorney, businesswoman, and former Miss Waco who identifies as a "constitutional conservative," and has tried to find a position in the Republican Party for 15 years or more. She's big on school prayer, fossil fuels, and Trump's border wall.

Place 4 has drawn two Dems hoping to take on to GOP incumbent Kevin Yeary. Steve Miears has 36 years of experience as a trial and appellate attorney and touts his experience in death penalty cases. His website states: "I know this area of the law and how it is evolving." Noting that the court "handled over 3,500 petitions for writs of habeas corpus" last year, Miears writes that the judge "elected to this bench should have experience" handling such requests. His opponent, Tina Clinton, has been a district judge in a Dallas County felony court since 2018, after eight prior years presiding in a misdemeanor court. She's also taught criminal law all over the country.


Visit us online at austinchronicle.com/elections for more info on the Democratic primary’s contested judicial races downballot: 3rd Court of Appeals, six District Court contests, and County Court at Law No. 4.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

March 2020 Primary, Texas Democratic Party, Amy Clark Meachum, Texas Supreme Court, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Glen Maxey, Jerry Zimmerer, Larry Praeger, Kathy Cheng, Staci Williams, Brandy Voss, Gisela Triana, Greg Abbott, Brett Busby, Peter Kelly, Dan Wood, Elizabeth Davis Frizell, Bert Richardson, Gina Parker, Steve Miears

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