Judge vs. Judge in the 419th District Court Primary

This time it's personal


Madeleine Connor (Courtesy of the Connor campaign)

Most local Democratic primary elections are fairly sleepy affairs – often uncontested, or between entrenched incumbents and hopelessly outclassed challengers, although open seats can induce more heated contests. Once in a while, though, even a downballot race triggers a backstory generating surprising sparks.

Such is the current Dem choice for the 419th District Court, where incumbent Judge Catherine Mauzy faces a challenge from Madeleine Connor – also an incumbent district judge, but in the 353rd Court. It is highly unusual – in local political memory, unprecedented — for a sitting judge in one district court to primary a sitting judge in another district court, effectively running for precisely the same job.

That circumstance is odd enough. But there is also a personal legal history between these two judges. In 2019, first-year Judge Mauzy ruled that then attorney Connor was a "vexatious litigant" (one who has pursued frivolous or harassing lawsuits) following a series of unsuccessful court actions against her neighbors in the Lost Creek neighborhood on Austin's far west side. Mauzy's decision echoed a similar 2018 decision by federal Judge Robert Pitman that included financial sanctions, eventually leading to a sheriff's sale of a Lost Creek rental home owned by Connor in order to pay the judgment. Connor subsequently lost appeals of both judgments, and was still pursuing that litigation in 2020 when she narrowly defeated two-term 353rd District Judge Tim Sulak. Halfway through a 4-year term, Connor is now taking on Mauzy – and it's difficult to conceive Connor's election challenge as anything other than an attempt at personal retribution.

Connor did not return calls requesting comment on her campaign, and her unfinished campaign website does not mention Mauzy at all. It also does not mention that Connor is already a sitting judge – listing only her previous positions, concluding with her previous service as general counsel to the Texas Veterans Commission.

Connor’s challenge of Mauzy is an attempt “to take advantage of our party, our community, and the Democratic voters of Travis County.” – Text from the Travis County Democratic Party’s formal censure of Connor

Instead, she self-describes as "a single mom, domestic abuse survivor, and a self-made lawyer," as well as a champion for "the little guy," and argues that there should be more women on the district bench.

In a brief interview, Mauzy declined to speculate about Connor's motives ("I can't get inside her head"), saying only that, if they are indeed personally vengeful, "it's in response to me doing my job." Following the "vexatious litigant" ruling, Connor told the Chronicle in early 2020 that Mauzy should have recused herself, because in 2007, as a private attorney, she had represented Connor's ex-husband "in a very contentious divorce." Asked about that claim, Mauzy explained that she had indeed represented the husband – not in the divorce, but in a subsequent dispute over child custody terms. When Connor appeared before her court in 2019, Mauzy mentioned that previous, unrelated litigation and asked if anyone objected to her presiding over the Lost Creek dispute. Connor waived any objection – but following Mauzy's decision, filed a belated and unsuccessful motion for recusal.

Downballot primary races like this one, depending so much on specific turnout, name recognition, even ballot order, are always unpredictable. In Connor's 353rd primary, Judge Sulak was well-known and well-respected among lawyers and in local Democratic circles, but he ran a very quiet, polite campaign in an era when many voters, otherwise unfamiliar with the candidates, reflexively tilt toward women on the ballot. Connor won't have that particular advantage in this race, and Mauzy also bears a name legendary among older Texas Democrats – her father, Oscar Mauzy, was a longtime liberal champion in the state Senate and later on the Texas Supreme Court. But it's uncertain whether younger or newly local voters will share those memories. Mauzy said she learned early, "I know only two ways to run a political race – scared, or unopposed," and that she's campaigning accordingly.

Thus far, the only direct interaction between the two candidates (other than online meetings for the District Courts Central Docket) was at Democratic Party headquarters on Ballot Order Selection Day, when Connor shook hands with Mauzy, and then drew first position. Otherwise, as of last week Connor reportedly had not taken part in any of the early (remote) endorsement meetings of Democratic clubs. Commented Mauzy: "If you're asking the public to elect you, you ought to show up to explain why."

“If you’re asking the public to elect you, you ought to show up to explain why.” – Judge Catherine Mauzy on her opponent’s low profile on the campaign trail

Connor's low profile raises a broader political question: whether she's a Demo­crat at all. Available records reflect that she's previously run for office as a Republican at least three times, voted regularly in GOP primaries, and donated to Republican causes. Asked in the past about this partisan history, she's responded that judicial races should be nonpartisan, but that you have to pick a party in order to run.

In response to this unprecedented situation, the Travis County Democratic Party (executive committee, confirmed by the precinct chairs) recently issued a formal censure of Connor, calling her challenge of Mauzy an attempt "to take advantage of our party, our community, and the Democratic voters of Travis County." How widely primary voters will be aware of the formal party censure is unclear.

Party Chair Katie Naranjo said that in an early conversation, Connor said she was considering running for one of the open district judge seats, or perhaps a higher court, but instead appeared in the final hours of filing day to challenge Mauzy. Local Democrats are concerned that her potential victory in the 419th not only would extend her judicial term for another two years, but would open the 353rd Court to a presumably Republican judge to be appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott. Naranjo said the party has never before censured a candidate in the primary, but that this is an "exceptional situation. We needed to inform voters of [Connor's] extraordinarily negative behavior. ... The level of dishonesty in her campaign made it necessary to issue that censure."

Former Party Chair Chuck Herring noted the unprecedented cross-challenge to a sitting judge. "The fact that [Connor] decided to run against a well-respected district judge who had ruled against her in a case as a 'vexatious litigant,'" he said, "has raised concerns among members of the Bar about her judgment and motives. Her [Republican] voting record and donations have raised concerns about her alleged affiliations with the Democratic Party."

Several attempts to reach Connor for comment were unsuccessful. Asking local attorneys – who might appear before either of these judges in the 353rd or 419th Court, whatever happens in the election – to comment on the record proved fruitless. Finally, the official phone number for Connor's 353rd Court has never been updated from its listing for Sulak. The court webpage does feature a would-be glamour shot of Connor, and the phone line voicemail provides only an incomprehensible, mechanical growl, with no opportunity to leave a response.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

March 2022 Primary, 419th Civil District Court, Catherine Mauzy, Madeleine Connor, 353rd Civil District Court, Travis County Democratic Party, Katie Naranjo, Chuck Herring, vexatious litigant

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