For the first time in history, women are serving as the district attorneys in six consecutive Texas counties lining Interstate Highway 35, from San Antonio to Georgetown.
Starting south and heading north, the DAs include Bexar County Criminal DA Susan Reed; 25th Judicial District DA Heather McMinn, whose jurisdiction includes Guadalupe County; Comal County Criminal DA Jennifer Tharp; Hays County Criminal DA Sherri Tibbe; Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg; and Williamson County DA Jana Duty.
“I think those women who are being elected to these offices have definitely shattered whatever glass ceiling there used to be,” says Shannon Edmonds, governmental relations staff attorney of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association (TDCAA). Edmonds notes that the phenomenon of six consecutive women DAs follows a statewide uptick in female DAs and county attorneys, and it also reflects a “changing gender demographic” among Texas prosecutors.
Tibbe, who started in 2007 as Hays County’s top prosecutor, says, “What happened here along this IH-35 corridor is indicative of a larger trend of more women getting elected.”
Lehmberg, Travis County’s DA since 2009, says each of the six women “have been interested in criminal justice for a good, long time, so it makes sense to run for district attorney.”
Duty, who this year became Williamson County’s first female DA, says she was also the first woman to serve as county attorney there.
“It has been as struggle in this county to gain respect and be accepted,” recalls Duty. It’s good that women overcame the “hurdle,” she says.
“I think it’s a sign of the times in that people are changing their attitudes about women holding positions of authority,” says Duty, adding, “A lot of the good-old-boy generation is dying off. People are more willing to vote for women than they were before.”
McMinn, who took office in 2009 over a jurisdiction that includes Guadalupe, Gonzales and Lavaca counties, says she’s proud that women “are willing to step out there and run for office.”
“I think it’s good for our community and good for our state,” she says, adding that prosecution is “a field still dominated by males, and it’s good to see we have strong women in these positions.”
Reed, the longest-serving DA of the group, became Bexar County’s top prosecutor in 1999. She notes there’s also an “emergence” of women in national political positions such as the U.S. Senate and the judiciary.
“I think that’s also spilling over into the realm of DA,” she says.
TDCAA data backs up that hypothesis. In 2005, women accounted for 15.4 percent of the state’s 332 elected prosecutors, which includes DAs and county attorneys. In 2013, the percentage of women increased to 20.7, meaning there are 69 women among the 333 elected DA’s and county attorneys.
Edmonds says he’s also noticed that more women have been attending TDCAA’s annual courses for new prosecutors.
“I think this may be true of the bar in general. I think more women are graduating” with law degrees, Edmonds says.
State Bar of Texas data shows that the percentage of female attorneys in Texas has steadily inched up since 2003. According to the Bar’s Attorney Statistical Profile of Dec. 31, 2003, 71 percent of lawyers in Texas were male and 29 percent were female. Compare that to the profile of Dec. 31, 2011: 67 percent of attorneys were male and 33 percent were female.
A Woman’s Touch
Many of the women DAs lining IH-35 say that, although they handle the job of DA much like their male colleagues, women may bring different perspectives and organizational skills.
“I’ve got men and women prosecutors in the office, and one set is not more aggressive than the other or anything like that, but I do think women just have a different perspective on life than men, but I think there’s not a great deal of difference,” says Lehmberg.
Tibbe echoes that point.
“We all have one primary function: to seek justice in each and every case. I don’t know it [being a woman] would change how we do our jobs, but our perspectives are certainly different,” she says. For example, Tibbe says she’s always been a working mom, and motherhood creates an “ultimate multitasker.”
McMinn, who has four children, says, “It’s quite a challenge being a mom and a district attorney.”
She’s noticed that working moms have the ability to balance their responsibilities and be great, productive lawyers, says McMinn.
Tharp, also a mother, says she balances her work and family lives, and she uses the same multitasking skills to administer her office. She adds that children and female crime victims can connect with her.
“As a woman, I think it’s easier for me to relate to that victim or that battered spouse,” Tharp says. “When I talk to female teenage victims, they feel more comfortable in talking with me than a male prosecutor.”
Reed says she thinks women DAs may use resources differently than male DAs.
“It’s a little bit different than just worrying about cops and robbers. It focuses on how it really affects your community, your families, your life,” Reed says, explaining that she’s focused on victim services and created programs to tackle elder fraud and human trafficking.
Reed recalls a conversation with the DA who hired her when she first began working as a prosecutor.
“I was told they had one of their women lawyers quit, and they had to fill up that space, that quota. That was a long time ago. Things have changed a little bit,” Reed says. She notes that in 1999 when she took office, there were no other female DAs in Texas’ major metropolitan areas.
“I’ve set a precedent. Next thing you know, the whole state, right?” jokes Reed.