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Judicial Committee recommends against reappointment of five judges

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council’s Judicial Committee acted in swift unity Monday morning, voting unanimously to recommend a slate of Municipal Court judge appointments that did not include five sitting judges. The vote came after a change in the recommendation process and increased Council scrutiny on how the Municipal Court handles indigent cases following a 2015 lawsuit.

“These positions are extremely powerful positions, and they’re not elected,” said Council Member Delia Garza, who is on the Judicial Committee. “It’s hard for them to be held accountable if there’s something going on that seems to be something we don’t want to see in our judges. The decisions that these people make, they affect people’s lives. They affect (them) significantly. … Many of the people I represent are affected by what happens in this court.

“This is the only setting that we really have to change … our municipal judges,” she continued.

Garza explained that her office drafted a recent resolution that gives alternatives to jail for poor defendants “out of extreme concern for our prison becoming a debtors’ prison.” She said that the ways judges set bonds can put families into debt as they try to avoid jail and that she hoped that decisions would “be based on professionalism and fairness and compassion” moving forward.

Committee members recommended 18 judges for appointment in all. Those recommendations did not include five current judges, based on the unanimous option of a nine-member panel of attorneys and legal professionals. After their appointment in January, the members of the panel spent two meetings reviewing a packet that included essays penned by the judges, stakeholder surveys and complaints. At the end of that review, they did not recommend overnight magistrate Erik Cary or part-time substitute judges Beverly Landers, Olivia Ruiz, Celeste Villarreal and Witcher McCullough for reappointment.

McCullough told the Austin Monitor he was disappointed by the new process, which was implemented this past December.

“I think they should at least interview the candidates,” he said. McCullough said that he was unable to get an explanation for the lack of a recommendation and had no chance to respond to the evaluation.

“We learned about it on TV this morning … that’s how we found out,” he said. “I didn’t make the final cut, and I have no idea why. The process is disappointing, and I am disappointed, and I am totally confused about their results.”

He said that while the opportunity exists to advocate on his own behalf directly to Council members, he hadn’t yet decided whether he would do that.

Ruiz expressed similar sentiments to the Monitor. “We never really talked to the people that were evaluating us,” she said, calling the process “very convoluted.”

“We really were kept out of the loop,” said Ruiz. “I don’t know what any of us are going to do.”

In contrast, members of the panel and Judicial Committee praised the new process.

“I have been directly involved in the appointment process for Municipal Judges for eight years,” said panel member Amber Vasquez-Bode in a press release Monday. “This process has by far been the most thorough process and included the most information of any I have participated in. I truly hope we can take this year as a model of how to evaluate our Municipal Court Judges going forward.”

Emily Gerrick, who is an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, told the Monitor that the panel was “a pretty diverse group” that managed to reach a consensus on the five judges.

“I thought it was very thorough, and I thought there was a very good mix of panelists representing different experiences with the judges. And the fact that the decisions were unanimous on the judges, I thought, was telling,” said Gerrick. “There were some really horrifying stories from some of the defense attorneys. There were a couple of judges that refused to sign bonds for certain attorneys that they didn’t like, which I just find really shocking. It’s taking it out on indigent defendants, personal grudges with attorneys they didn’t choose.”

City Council is scheduled to vote on the appointments at its March 8 meeting. Council Member Leslie Pool, who is also on the Judicial Committee, told the Monitor that she anticipates a quick hiring process that will use the judicial panel and conclude in April.

This story has been corrected. A previous version misspelled Erik Cary’s name. Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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