Hundreds of Democrats who packed the ballroom at a Houston hotel on election night cheered and whooped it up when celebrating Barack Obama’s election as president, but Democratic lawyers and others who pay attention to the courthouses were likely just as euphoric about Democratic victories in Harris County trial court races.
Buoyed by early voting that gave most Democratic trial court candidates in Harris County a 50,000-vote lead for Election Day, Democrats won big on Nov. 4 and captured 23 of 27 trial benches up for grabs, based on complete but unofficial returns.
The Democratic success in Harris County this election follows a similar tsunami in Dallas County in 2006, when 40 Republican judges were defeated at the ballot when Democratic candidates swept the civil and criminal courthouses.
The turnover gives Democrats 14 of 25 civil court benches in Harris County, seven of 22 criminal courts, one of nine family courts, and one of four probate courts.
Democrats in Harris County have looked forward to moving back into the courthouses since 1994, when Republicans swept the trial court elections. The last time a Democrat was elected to a trial court in Harris County was 1996, when Judge Katie Kennedy was re-elected to the 164th District Court.
The slate of Democratic judicial candidates benefited from voters who turned out to cast ballots for Obama and high Democratic straight-ticket voting.
“It was just an Obama wave that swept the nation,” Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, says in explaining why the Democrats ousted so many incumbents and long-serving Republican judges.
Woodfill says a “very strong grassroots effort” averted a full Democratic sweep of the trial courts.
Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, says Obama did bring out some Democratic voters. But Birnberg says changing demographics in Harris County is the more important reason why the Democrats did so well in the trial bench races in Harris County.
The way Birnberg sees it, Democrats now have a base of about 52.5 percent of the vote, and that margin put many of the Democratic judicial candidates over the top.
Voter turnout on Election Day was 1,184,820 in Harris County, or 62.6 percent of the 1,892,656 registered voters. Woodfill and Birnberg expected higher turnout. Each also says that would have helped his party’s candidates.
Based on unofficial results, only four Republican judges held onto their trial benches in Harris County. Three are civil court judges: 190th District Judge Patricia Kerrigan, who got 50.12 percent of the vote to defeat Democrat Andres Pereira; 333rd District Judge Joseph “Tad” Halbach, who got 50.02 percent of the vote to defeat Goodwille Pierre; and 334th District Judge Sharon McCally, who defeated Ashish Mahendru with 51.43 percent of the vote. On the criminal side, where eight incumbent Republican judges were on the ballot, 351st District Judge Mark Kent Ellis was the only incumbent who won. He defeated Mekisha Murray with 50.58 percent of the vote.
Birnberg says there’s a common link among the Democratic judicial candidates who lost on Tuesday — uncommon names.
“Goodwille is not a common name. Certainly Ashish is not a common name, or Mekisha or Andres. Those are names that are distinct from David and Robert and Elizabeth, and were problematic to run on a ballot in which you had 40 judicial races,” Birnberg says.
Mahendru, a solo practitioner, says his Indian name may be unfamiliar to voters, but he has not had an opportunity to do a post-mortem of the election. However, Mahendru, whose wife, Sameera, is also an attorney, says the experience of running for office has been valuable and exciting, because he and his wife met so many people they might otherwise have never met.
Murray, also a solo practitioner, declines comment on the election, Pierre did not return a telephone message before presstime on Nov. 6, and Pereira’s phone was ringing busy.
While the election results give Democrats 23 of the 27 trial courts on the ballot, there’s a slim chance results could change in a couple of the races after provisional ballots are vetted and included in the vote tallies if valid, and some overseas ballots arrive by a deadline on Nov. 9. Hector de Leon, a spokesman for the Harris County Clerk’s Office, says 6,950 provisional ballots will be examined over a few days.
The Harris County courthouses will be a different place in January, after the new group of Democratic judges take the bench.
Judge Sharolyn Wood of the 127th District Court, who has been a civil court judge for 25 years, says Harris County residents lost a lot of judicial experience in one fell swoop on Nov. 4 when she and 13 other Republican civil court judges lost their jobs.
Wood says integrating so many new judges into the courthouses will be difficult. Bringing on four or five new judges a year has been a challenge, since veteran judges spend a lot of time mentoring the new ones, she says.
The group of new judges got even larger on Nov. 5 when Gov. Rick Perry filled two civil vacancies. He appointed Sylvia A. Matthews, a partner in Andrews Kurth in Houston, as judge in the 281st District Court, and Daniel E. Hinde, a senior counsel with Houston’s Steele Sturm, to the 269th District Court.
Wood, who has been on the bench longer than any other civil judge, was defeated by R.K. “Ravi” Sandill, an associate with Steele Sturm in Houston. However, Wood says she was defeated by Democratic straight-ticket voters more than Sandill’s name on the ballot. On Nov. 4, 390,284 Democrats voted a straight ticket, compared to only 342,974 Republicans, a spread of about 50,000 votes.
Sandill says he chose to run against Wood because he decided “it was a winnable race.” He concedes he benefited from Obama’s strength.
“It was more about Barack Obama than it was about R.K. Sandill. The Republican brand has diminished,” he says.
Judge Mark Kent Ellis, the only criminal court Republican to win his race on Nov. 4, says the mood is somber around the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, because of the election results.
He’s not sure why he won his race, other than to say, “God wanted me to keep my job.” Ellis doesn’t believe he campaigned any differently from his fellow judges.
“Obviously I’m glad that I won and glad I have four more years to work for the county,” he says. “The reality is we’ve lost seven judges with good experience . . . dedicated people. I hope and pray their replacements do a good job.”
In addition to the 14 civil benches and the seven criminal courts, Democrat Robert Hinojosa won 51.3 percent of the vote to defeat David Farr for the 312th District Court, a family court. Farr was appointed in 2007, and Hinojosa is a hearing officer for the City of Houston Municipal Courts.
In a comeback, Democrat Kathy Stone, who bucked the Republican sweep in 1994 by winning re-election that year as a civil court judge, defeated Republican Georgia Akers for judge of Probate Court No. 1. Stone, 55th district judge from 1991 to 1998, says she had some name recognition because of her previous campaigns.
“If I had been the only Democrat who had won, I would feel it was something I did, but a lot of Democrats won in Harris County,” Stone says. “There were just a lot of people who came out to vote for the very first time. The demographics have been changing since 1994.”
Akers, who was appointed to the bench earlier this year after the death of Probate Judge Russell Austin, did not return a telephone message.
Leaders in the Dallas County Republican and Democratic parties have some advice for Harris County lawyers and judges about how to handle the shakeup in the Harris County trial courts. After all, Dallas County experienced a complete sweep of its trial benches in 2006 when 40 Republicans lost their jobs to Democrats in that year’s general election.
Darlene Ewing, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party and a family law solo, invites the new judges to speak with Dallas Democratic judges about the challenges they’ve already faced.
“When you have such a large number of judges taking over the courthouse, lawyers get nervous, courthouse staff get anxious, the local bar goes into a snit-fit. It’s just a lot happening at once,” Ewing says. “I think they could talk to our judges about some of the battles they will face on issues like staffing, budgets, bar relationships — just all of that internal stuff that is thrust on them. Our judges have done it and can help the Harris County judges in what they will be facing.”
As for the lawyers, Ewing suggests that the Harris County Bar Association host a mass invocation event for all of the new Democratic judges as a way to reach out to them. After all, it’s understandable that many in the Harris County bar likely didn’t support the Democratic challengers, Ewing says.
“They need to develop a camaraderie. They need to celebrate together,” Ewing says.
“All of the newness sends lawyers into a frenzy, and they’ve lost all of their relationship with the judiciary. It’s going to take some work. But our lawyers did it,” Ewing says. “And the lawyers learned that the sky didn’t fall and in some ways things got better. Harris County lawyers will see that. Just give it time.”
Jonathan Neerman, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, says lawyers should be patient with the new judges and compare notes about how to deal with them.
Harris County isn’t the only area in Texas where Democrats beat incumbent Republican judges. In Bexar County, two of the three Republican district court judges who faced Democratic challengers in the Nov. 4 election lost their bids for re-election.
As noted in the official vote count on the Bexar County Elections Department’s Web site, Democrat Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, a San Antonio solo, won 51.36 percent of the 497,767 votes cast to defeat 57th District Judge Joe F. Brown Jr., a Republican who has held that seat since 2005. In the race for the 379th District Court bench, Democrat Ron Rangel, another San Antonio solo, received 53.75 percent of the 490,387 votes cast to unseat Republican Judge Bert Richardson.
Richardson, who has served on the 379th District Court since 1999 when then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed him, says he twice ran successfully for re-election and believes that straight-ticket voting by Democrats caused his defeat this year. “I don’t know that there’s any way to overcome the straight-lever voters in Bexar County,” he says.
As noted on the Election Department’s Web site, Democratic voters cast 155,389 straight-party ballots, while Republican voters cast 118,870 straight-party ballots.
Arteaga attributes her victory in the 57th District Court race to the Bexar County Democratic Party’s coordinated effort to get the vote out for the election.
Neither Brown nor Rangel returned telephone calls seeking comment.
Republican Judge David Berchelmann of the 37th District Court received 50.07 percent of the 496,374 votes cast in that race to become the apparent winner over Democrat Amber Alwais.
But Alwais, an associate with San Antonio’s McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing, says, “The election’s not over.” Alwais says Berchelmann won by 730 votes, but approximately 1,000 provisional ballots and about 500 mail-in ballots have not been counted yet.
Berchelmann could not be reached for comment about the provisional ballots.
Commissioners courts in Bexar and Harris counties will canvass the votes on Nov. 17, and those final counts will include any qualified provisional ballots or mail-in ballots.
So what’s on tap for the 2010 election in Harris County, when the rest of the trial court benches are up for grabs?
Birnberg, the Democratic Party chairman who is a partner in Houston’s Williams, Birnberg & Andersen, says 2010 should be a watershed year for Democrats in Harris County. The judicial races will certainly be affected by the candidates on the top of the ticket, he notes. He expects to field a full slate of Democratic judicial candidates.
If Houston Mayor Bill White “is on the ticket as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2010, that probably will have at least as strong an effect on the Democratic core and base votes as Barack Obama,” Birnberg says.
Birnberg’s Republican counterpart, Woodfill, a partner in Woodfill & Pressler, says, “I still believe this is a Republican county.”
Dallas County’s Neerman, an associate in the Dallas office of Hunton & Williams, says Republicans in Harris County shouldn’t give up hope. He believes they can hold on to benches in 2010.
“There will be a lot of fingerpointing and second-guessing, but at the end of the day it’s driven by the top of the ticket. For them and for us it will be driven by the gubernatorial race” in the next election cycle, Neerman says. “There will be panicking by the grassroots [Republicans], but in a presidential election there’s very little that the county [party] can do. In a presidential election, the judges are along for the ride.”
Democratic campaign consultant Marc Campos of Houston says it may be tougher for the Democrats two years from now, in part because Obama won’t be on the ballot.
“If I’m a judge, a Republican judge, do I start figuring out, if I have to run in two years . . . where I should land in private practice? I don’t think that’s the case,” Campos says.
But Campos says the Harris County Democratic Party needs to register at least 100,000 new Latino voters before the 2010 elections to keep the momentum going. He says, “The Latino vote is there for the Democrats.”