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September 18th, 2018:

Judicial Q&A: Julie Countiss

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Julie Countiss

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I’m Assistant County Attorney Julie Countiss and I’m the Democratic nominee for First Court of Appeals,
Place Seven.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The First Court of Appeals hears criminal and civil cases on appeal from the trial courts in a 10-county district. The district is comprised of the following counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The justice who has served on this bench for 17 years is not seeking re-election so it is an open seat. I saw an opportunity to run in a race without an incumbent. There is rarely ever an open seat on the First Court of Appeals. Usually, the justice who is stepping down leaves before the term expires so that the governor can appoint a like-minded replacement. The concern I have with a system of appointing rather than electing state court judges is the risk of elitism and politics infecting the process. Electing judges has its own pitfalls but it provides an opportunity to people who are willing to put themselves out there and do the hard work of campaigning and getting to know the voters and the precinct chairs and members of the bar. The doors to the courtroom are meant to be wide open for everyone and I am running to keep them open.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have 16 years of experience and I was appointed Assistant County Attorney in 2014. I have the honor of serving the people of Harris County every day in complex federal and state court litigation. I am also in the Nuisance Abatement Group working with law enforcement to hold business owners accountable who profit from criminal enterprises like illicit spas where women are often trafficked. For the appellate courts, it’s important to elect candidates with solid trial court experience who understand the civil trial courts in particular. I won the State Bar of Texas Judicial Preference Poll for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 7 in 2018. My campaign has been endorsed by the GLBT Caucus of Houston, the Harris County Tejano Democrats, the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston, the Pasadena Bar Association, the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation/AFL-CIO, and several former appellate court justices, including my Dad who served on the 7th Court of Appeals in Amarillo.

5. Why is this race important?

In 90% of cases, the First Court of Appeals is the last chance for parties to seek justice in both criminal and civil cases. The nine justices on the First Court of Appeals were all elected or appointed as Republicans. I’m seeking the place currently held by Justice Jennings who is not running for re-election. Justice Jennings switched parties in 2016 and is often the lone dissenter. The dissent rate is approximately 1% on the Court. There should be more diversity of experience and diversity of thinking on the Court of Appeals. I’m more likely to bring those qualities to the court than my opponent who is very vocal about his anti-equality political beliefs and his dedication to Dr. Steven Hotze and the Conservative Republicans of Harris County PAC.

I also believe the quality of justice in the First District could be greatly improved by making equal access to justice a bigger priority. The overwhelming cost, time commitment and complexity of the legal process can be a barrier for so many people. Important decisions are made in our courts every day that impact the lives of working families and those decisions can really hurt their pocketbooks, property rights, civil rights, health, custody and marital property rights and employment. This is especially true for those who can’t afford a quality attorney. I would like to see more funding for legal aid and more incentive for attorneys to provide pro bono representation to low income individuals at the appellate level.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have more experience practicing law in the civil courts than my opponent. For the appellate courts, it’s important to elect candidates with civil litigation experience who understand the civil trial courts. The justices on the First Court of Appeals spend close to 70% of their time on complex civil appeals. I stay up-to-date on important appellate decisions that impact my practice areas. I maintain a robust motions and trial court practice — writing and arguing complicated and contentious legal issues frequently. I have the core values, integrity, experience and dedication to public service necessary to be an excellent justice.

There are reasons why “suspect addresses” may be legit

Real talk here.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas law requires voters to register where they live. At the same time, state law requires counties to take voters at their word that their voter registration applications are truthful.

Registrars who suspect an address may be invalid can send letters to voters asking them to confirm where the live. If residents re-submit the same address, however, registrars must process the application. Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, said the only other remedy registrars have is to refer cases to district attorneys for prosecution.

“The Texas Election Code does not grant any sort of additional investigative authority to a voter registrar in that situation,” Taylor said. “That’s where investigators and/or law enforcement get involved.”

Taylor said the secretary of state’s office has received complaints about the issue in the past, but said instances in which voters insist they live at an address that appears commercial are not a widespread problem.

“It does occur occasionally and we do occasionally hear frustrations from county voter registrars,” Taylor said.

See here for some background. Let’s state up front again that elected officials routinely game the “home address” requirement, with far less scrutiny. Let’s also state that the election process for many utility districts is a sham, again with far less attention and outcry than a few votes with PO box addresses. We could be a little more consistent about this sort of thing, is what I’m saying.

Having said all that, let’s talk about why some people might legitimately not want to put their residential address on their voter registration. Some people are dealing with stalkers and abusive exes, and thus do not want their home locations to be publicly searchable. Some people are homeless, or in transitional situations. Some people may be on temporary assignments out of state or out of the country. I have a friend from college who spent several years as a road-warrior employee for a company that provided software and training services for law firms. She literally lived in hotels or at friends’ houses year-round, and used her employer’s New York office as her mailing address. Some people live in Winnebagos and drive around the country.

I would argue that all these people have a right to vote that should not be challenged by some busybody party apparatchiks. It may be that some folks have dishonorable reasons for not using a “true” residential address on their registrations, but let’s keep some perspective here. Four thousand of them may sound like a lot, but there are 2.3 million registered voters in Harris County, so we’re talking less than 0.2% of the total. It’s basically a rounding error, even if you refuse to grant that there are any legitimate reasons for doing this. Maybe instead of obsessing over this tiny number of technical violations, we could grant ordinary voters the same deference we insist on giving elected officials when it comes to where they say they live.

(If instead we want to crack down on elected officials with dubious residential situations, I know who I’d start with. But we both know that’s not going to happen.)

It’s Runoff Day in SD19

This is an important election.

Pete Gallego

The aggressive drive by top Texas Republicans to flip a Democratic-friendly state Senate seat will culminate Tuesday as their candidate, Pete Flores, faces Democrat Pete Gallego in the final round of a special election.

The runoff for Senate District 19 will determine the successor to former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who resigned earlier this year after 11 felony convictions. But the contest also has implications for the balance of power in the upper chamber, where the GOP is heading into the November elections with a tenuous hold on their supermajority.

As a result, GOP leaders have lined up behind Flores, a former state game warden who unsuccessfully challenged Uresti in 2016, and in some cases, activated their own campaign machinery to help him against Gallego. The Democrat is a former congressman from Alpine who previously represented the area for over two decades in the Texas House.

The GOP believes the all-hands-on-deck effort has put the seat within reach.

“We feel good about where we are,” Flores strategist Matt Mackowiak said. “If Republicans turn out on Tuesday, we will win and elect a conservative from SD-19 to the Texas Senate.”

Democrats have also mobilized, well aware of the GOP heavyweights on the other side and the anything-can-happen nature of special elections.

“This is a Democratic district, we expect it to perform like a Democratic district, but we cannot take anything for granted and that’s why we’re working hard,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

See here for the previous update. This is, in a Presidential year, a 10-12 point Democratic district. Not insurmountable, but pretty solid. In a bad year like 2014 was, it’s basically 50-50. Gallego goes into this runoff as the favorite on the numbers, and he’s quite familiar with running in tight circumstances, but it is certainly possible he could lose. If that happens, that would be a big damper on any pro-“blue wave” story line for Texas. Dems collectively did just fine in Round One, outperforming the Presidential year baseline by a couple of points. And for all their big talk, Republicans did everything they could to win without having to run, which suggests that maybe the big talk is just that. As is always the case with special elections and runoffs, it’s all about who shows up. I’ll have the result tomorrow.