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Sage claims majority of Travis County Democratic endorsements

Friday, January 29, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Of the four candidates running in the Democratic primary race for judge of the 299th District Court, only two came away with endorsements last night at the Travis County Democratic Primary Candidates’ Forum.


The big winner was Karen Sage, an assistant district attorney in Travis County, who won outright the endorsements of six local Democratic organizations and shared the endorsement of one other. The groups that gave Sage their full support were the Circle C Area Democrats, the Capital City Young Democrats, the Northeast Travis County Democrats, the Capital Area Progressive Democrats, the Black Austin Democrats, and the Austin Tejano Democrats. That last group announced its endorsement only after holding a run-off vote to choose between Sage and her nearest rival, Mindy Montford.


Sage had already won the endorsement of South Austin Democrats. Montford ran for District Attorney against Rosemary Lehmberg in 2008. She is the former wife of Brewster McCracken and the daughter of former Senator John Montford.


Montford, a defense attorney and legal analyst for KXAN News, earned the endorsement of the Capital Area Asian American Democrats and shared the endorsement of the Texas Environmental Democrats with Sage.


Earlier in the evening, Sage told In Fact Daily that she wants to be a judge in order to help find “new, innovative ways of dealing with the criminal justice system.” As the mental health prosecutor in the Travis County DA’s office, she said, she’s come to realize how much can be done to improve what she sees as institutional problems in the treatment and incarceration of the mentally ill.


“In the first four months I’ve been running the mental health department,” she said, “we’ve decreased the amount of time the mentally ill are spending in jail by about 61 percent. We get these mentally ill people out of the criminal justice system and into the support and services they need. There’s more I can do as a judge, where you can have serious judicial involvement in cases to try and find new ways to solve some problems, particularly in terms of sentencing.


“But I’m not talking about violent crimes; my number one priority is keeping the community safe. But in the mental health world there are defendants who if you put them on probation and give them services that have accountability and responsibility – not a free ride but programs that really work – you can help break the cycle that locks them in the criminal justice system.”


“I think I have the experience necessary to be able to hear these cases,” she continued. “I teach law at UT in addition to practicing law, so I l think I have the legal knowledge and experience to make good rulings and make sure that justice is done.”


Asked to compare her experience to Montford’s, Sage said, “The critical difference in our experience is I have been a court chief. As the court chief, you’re working with the judge and supervising the other attorneys in the court. The key thing the judge does is to monitor the docket to make sure that’s under control, so that people who are in jail are getting their day in court as quickly as possible.”


Montford, told In Fact Daily she feels that it’s diversity of experience, not just experience, that counts when it comes to running a courtroom. “After working on both sides of the bench in county courtrooms for 10 years,” she said, “being both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, I feel like I’m the person in the race with the most diverse background.” During her career, she said, she’s tried more than 100 jury trials, ranging from murder, sexual assault, family violence, and child abuse cases to white-collar crime cases.


In addition, she’s tried nine capital cases and she helped draft the original life-without-parole bill at the state Legislature, one that gives juries more discretion in capital cases.


“As a judge, you are confined by the law,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t invoke some sort of creative sentencing. I would think outside the box in terms of probation, but I would definitely follow the law.”


She said her interest in thinking outside the box extends to the logistics of the courtroom as well.


“I want to try to consolidate some of our docket systems,” she said. “Right now, we require people who are accused of crimes, but who have not been convicted, to come to court, leave their jobs, find a ride to the courthouse, park, probably put money in the meter several times before their case is called, only to have their case reset. That happens multiple times. Sometimes it can drag on for a year. So I want to look at ways to consolidate our dockets and not require these individuals who have not been convicted of anything to show up repeatedly when nothing is going to happen with their cases.


“You have the ability as a judge to decide the rules of your courtroom. We can’t make policy from the bench, but we can certainly effect changes in the efficiency of the court.”


The other two Democratic candidates vying for the 299th District Court seat are Leonard Martinez and Eve Shatelowitz-Alcantar.

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