Accidental Victors

Wait...we voted for who?

"There is a hope now that Craig is going to establish a true open-file policy and that we will be able to get copies of police reports and all the things we should get anyway without there being roadblocks," Grant says.

The new Democratic judges are also hoping that Watkins can change the culture of the District Attorney's Office.

"Right now the D.A.'s Office gives the impression that they want convictions at all costs," says new criminal court Judge Lena Levario. "With Craig having been a defense attorney, that won't be the case."

Another brick in the wall: Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher might have fought for Democratic issues, but that didn't matter to Democrats.
Another brick in the wall: Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher might have fought for Democratic issues, but that didn't matter to Democrats.
Who am I?: New County Judge Jim Foster promises to bring harmony to the  
commissioners court.
Who am I?: New County Judge Jim Foster promises to bring harmony to the commissioners court.

Much like they did with Foster and Watkins, straight-ticket voters swept local Democrats into the judiciary. In essence, the candidates won a political lottery, not a contest of merit. Some Democrats such as Robert Burns, Ernie White and Levario come to the bench with no community complaints about their qualifications. (Burns is a respected defense lawyer. White is a visiting law professor at SMU. Levario is a former judge.) But others, including beleaguered county court at law incumbent Sally Montgomery, won election by nearly identical percentages despite grave concerns about their competency.

Judging by the voting percentages in judicial races, the voters didn't differentiate between the good and bad Democrats, nor the good and bad Republicans, opting for a wholesale party swap without regard to each candidate's particular qualifications. Naturally, last Tuesday's elections will renew questions about whether partisan voters should be trusted with choosing the local judiciary.

"If I'm having heart surgery, I don't want an intern cutting me," says outgoing criminal District Judge Manny Alvarez, who claims his replacement, Carter Thompson, isn't up to the job because he hasn't handled many felony cases. "I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican, I want to know if you have the experience when my life is at stake." (Thompson says he has represented felony defendants, though not as many as misdemeanor cases. Misdemeanors are more profitable, and besides, he's been busy lately running for judge.)

The Republican Party of Texas tried to make the qualifications of the Democratic judicial candidates an issue in an aggressive and misleading mailer it sent out during the campaign's homestretch. Referring to the Democratic candidate for the 282nd District Court, Andy Chatham, the mailer made light of the fact that he was suspended from practicing law this year, making it seem as if it were for incompetence or unethical behavior. Texas Lawyer later reported that Chatham's suspension only lasted for 12 days and stemmed from the candidate's failure to pay his Bar dues.

As you might have guessed, the Republican mailer didn't exactly address the more serious shortcomings of the candidate Chatham ultimately defeated, Karen Greene, who sent an innocent man to prison years earlier. Three years ago DNA evidence exonerated Entre Karage of the 1994 murder of his girlfriend. In a non-jury trial that lasted only one day, Greene convicted Karage and sentenced him to life in prison even though the prosecution had no eyewitness or forensic evidence tying him to the crime. (See "Undue Process," by Glenna Whitley, October 5.) Greene would later tell the Dallas Observer, "luckily the system did work," since DNA testing liberated Karage after seven years in prison.

It seems like Greene's lapse is just a tad more consequential than Chatham's failure to keep up with his Bar tab. And while election data shows that Greene wasn't singled out more than any other Republican judge, her loss won't exactly signal the end of jurisprudence in Dallas County.

The same likely goes for the defeat of criminal Court Judge Mary Miller. Last year, the former prosecutor under Hill allowed the state to present hearsay testimony in a murder case from a witness no one, least of all the prosecution, knows exists. ("Can I Get a Witness," October 19, 2006.) The case is now under appeal, and outside experts who looked over transcripts from the case were astonished at how Miller handled it. Defense attorneys who argued in her court rejoiced over her fall, after claiming for years she was biased toward the prosecution.

"She was not a good judge," says attorney Brian Gray, who argued several cases in her court. "She didn't respect the rights of the accused. I won't miss her."

Despite their accidental victory, the new jurists understand that they need to do better than the people they replaced. In the Democratic post-election press conference last week, Levario spoke about how "rehabilitation is not a liberal word," it's actually one of the aims of judges and prosecutors alike. That wasn't always the case during the Republican era.

"Every aspect of the criminal justice system will be looked at," Levario says. "And we have a plan to adjust it."

The new judges, nearly all of whom came from the defense bar, are almost certain to bring a fresh perspective to the bench. Nobody seriously expects them to go easy on the guilty, but there is a hope that they will have a better understanding of the fallibility of police officers and witnesses than the Republicans they replaced.

"The first thing is that it's a mindset change," Lesser says. "You've had people who have been out in the real world practicing law instead of being government employees. I think you're going to have judges who understand what 20 years really is."

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