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Commissioners must find replacement to head family violence court

Wednesday, September 4, 2019 by Jack Craver

It’s probably not a position most voters spend time thinking about, but members of the Travis County Commissioners Court stressed the importance of County Court #4 as they discussed appointing somebody to fill the vacancy created by departing incumbent Judge Mike Denton.

The court, which was set up 20 years ago, deals almost exclusively with misdemeanor charges related to family violence. Granting emergency protective orders to abuse victims is a critical component of that work. The court also connects victims with services and directs offenders to treatment programs aimed at solving the underlying problem, such as substance abuse, mental illness or past trauma.

“Those aren’t the kind of cases you can say, OK, we’ll do that next month,” said Denton, who showed up at the Commissioners Court to provide guidance on selecting his successor.

That’s why, Denton said, he’s usually available late nights and weekends, both for law enforcement seeking protective orders and defense attorneys trying to get clients bonded out of jail.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Denton has earned a reputation as “the judge you can always find.” He is often seen drinking coffee in front of the courthouse before 8 a.m., she noted.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Denton relayed a comment made by a colleague, who referred to domestic violence misdemeanors as “homicide prevention,” the idea being that getting victims out of dangerous situations and rehabilitating abusers will save lives.

Indeed, he recalls there were 14 murders linked to family violence in the year before the court was established in 1999. He believes the county has made significant progress since then. It’s important that his successor “understand the dynamics and context of domestic violence” and their role as part of a community effort to reduce abuse.

According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, in 2017 three women in Travis County were killed by their male intimate partner. Six times that were killed in Bexar County, which has about 1.5 times the population of Travis County, and nearly 10 times more were killed in Harris County, which is about 3.5 times as large.

“There are a lot of people depending on the judge understanding the issues to make the right call,” Commissioner Margaret Gómez said. “It’s a serious call.”

Denton conceded as much: “I once had somebody tell me when I first became a judge, ‘Rule and move on.’ That’s not the case on this court. Every decision you make, you wonder, did I do everything I was supposed to? And if somebody gets assaulted or there’s a fatality, we have to do a fatality review to go back and say, could we have done something better?”

Eckhardt, a former prosecutor in the county attorney’s office, said her work on domestic violence cases was the most rewarding of her career, but that the emotional burden was eventually too heavy to carry. One fatality review in particular, she said, forced her to end her career as a prosecutor.

Denton is stepping down from the position, which he has held since its establishment. He is one of several Democrats, along with Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and fellow Court-at-Law Judge Elisabeth Earle, who has expressed an interest in running for county attorney.

The judgeship would next be up for reelection in 2022, but the Commissioners Court has the authority to fill a vacancy that occurs in the middle of a term.

Any practicing attorney with four years’ experience who is at least 25 years old and has lived in Travis County since October 2017 is eligible for the position, but commissioners say they want somebody with substantial experience in criminal law.

A three-person panel consisting of Roger Jefferies, the head of the county’s Justice Planning Department; Deece Eckstein, the head of the county’s intergovernmental relations office; and Commissioner Brigid Shea, will vet the applicants and choose three finalists for the Commissioners Court to interview. The Commissioners Court will then decide who gets the position.

Denton’s last day on the job is Sept. 13. That’s the deadline for prospective successors to submit their applications. The commissioners plan to appoint someone by Oct. 1.

Denton also presides over the Veterans Treatment Court, which helps provide treatment to offenders whose crimes are linked to mental health issues incurred from military service. That function will be taken over by Judge Brad Urrutia of the 450th Criminal District Court.

Photo by LoneStarMike [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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