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Straight party voting poses big problem in county court races

October 5, 2018

Thirteen of the 15 Bexar County misdemeanor court judges are being challenged in November.

Most of them came into office during political party sweeps, and we have been fortunate that most of them — but not all — have turned out to be good judges. Voting for judicial candidates based on party is not in the best interest of the justice system. Political party membership comes with no guarantees about a candidate’s qualification for the job.

In the County Court-at-law No. 1 race, we recommend Democrat Helen Petry Stowe, who was recently appointed to fill a vacancy on this bench. This court is in desperate need of a judge with a strong work ethic who will put in full days and not abuse county leave policies. Petry Stowe, once a teen mom who earned a GED and taught public school before becoming a lawyer, was in her 10th year as an assistant district attorney when she received the judicial appointment.

John Fleming, who used to preside over this court, remains on the ballot even though he failed in his attempt to withdraw from the race, resigned his bench and relocated to Wichita Falls, where he has opened a law office.

In County Court-at-law No. 2, we recommend the re-election of Republican Jason Wolff to a third term. A former prosecutor, Wolff inherited a court with a heavy backlog and reduced the caseload to a manageable size.

In County Court-at-law No. 3, we recommend the re-election of Democrat David J. Rodriguez to a fifth term to this civil court bench. Rodriguez is the longest serving county court-at-law judge and holds the distinction of being the only Democrat with opposition to hold on to his bench during a Republican sweep at the polls. Rodriguez has earned a reputation as a fair and hardworking judge who is knowledgeable about the law.

In County Court-at-law No. 4, we recommend Democrat Alfredo Ximenez, who has been a criminal defense lawyer for 15 years. Ximenez raises some serious concerns about how the incumbent, Jason Garrahan, handled the DWI case of Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff.

Garrahan took the initial plea in the Wolff case but then recused himself when Wolff landed back in court for violations of the terms of his probation. Under the terms of the pleas, Wolff had been ordered to use a breath-alcohol monitor for six months, but during that short period he missed more than two dozen Breathalyzer tests and a court-ordered drug test.

Garrahan said he asked a visiting judge take over the case because he is an acquaintance of Wolff’s and feared a political opponent might use the handling of the case against him at election time. But if there was such a conflict, it existed from the beginning. Ximenez points out that many people in prison, some of them his clients, are incarcerated for missing three breath-alcohol monitoring tests.

And there’s this: Ximenez noted that Garrahan refused to recuse himself when he appeared in his court for a case. Garrahan said there was no need for recusal. But that need was obvious, and we’re concerned Garrahan couldn’t see it.

In County Court-at-law No. 5, we recommend incumbent Democrat John Longoria. A former county commissioner, defense lawyer and state representative, Longoria was appointed by county commissioners to the bench to fill a vacancy in 2015. He ran for the two years remaining on the unexpired term in 2016 and is now seeking his first four-year term.

Longoria has exhibited an exemplary work ethic during his tenure and can be counted to start court on time and be among the last to leave the courthouse. His county court-at-law colleagues, most of them Republicans, have elected him to serve as their administrative judge. The biggest complaint we hear about Longoria is that he takes too much time with each case. That might be a bad thing if you are a busy lawyer trying to juggle multiple court settings, but not such a bad thing if you are the defendant hearing the judge explain the consequences of a plea.

In County Court-at-law No. 7, we recommend Republican Eugenia “Genie” Wright for a third term. This court handles family violence cases. Wright has developed a reputation for moving cases through the system in a timely and efficient manner. She keeps close tabs on probationers to ensure their success and to maintain the safety of the victims in the emotionally charged cases brought before this court.

Wright does need to rethink the policy of barring the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office from practicing in her court and the other family violence court. This makes no sense and runs counter to other policies she has embraced. Wright was one of the first judges to preside over her own cases in jail court and established alternatives for those who cannot afford a commercial bond by offering them release on personal recognizance, along with a GPS monitoring device.

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