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Julie Countiss

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.

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.

Democratic primary runoff results

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Harris County results

Fort Bend County results

Statewide results

Trib liveblog

Just for the record, we didn’t get any precinct results until 8:34, at which time only 8% of precincts had reported. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of overwhelming turnout this time. We did get a big batch just after 9, but thanks to some close races, Harris County results will be the last ones I write about in this post.

Grady Yarbrough cements his position as this generation’s Gene Kelly by winning the Railroad Commissioner runoff. I’ll say again, you want a decent candidate to win these downballot primaries, especially against a perennial candidate, you’re going to need some investment in those races.

On a more interesting note, first-time candidate Vicente Gonzalez won the runoff in CD15 to succeed retiring Rep. Ruben Hinojosa. Gonzalez drew support from a bunch of Congressional incumbents, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Someone at least thinks he has a bright future, so keep an eye on him.

In Bexar County, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins will succeed retiring Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon in HD120.

In fairness to Stan Stanart, the Fort Bend County result reporting was even worse. They posted some precinct results a few minutes before Harris did, then bizarrely went back to showing early votes with zero precincts in. That was still the case as of 9:45 PM, then finally at 10 PM all the results came in at once. The deservedly maligned Rep. Ron Reynolds led 59-41 after early voting, then held on for a 53-47 margin. I wonder if voters were changing their minds, or if it was just the nature of Reynolds supporters to vote early. Whatever the case, he won.

And from Harris County:

– Dakota Carter wins in SBOE6.
– Ed Gonzalez will be the nominee for Sheriff.
– Judge Elaine Palmer easily held off JoAnn Storey for the 215th Civil District Court. Kristin Hawkins had an easy win for the 11th. The closest race of the evening was in the 61st, where Fredericka Phillips nosed out Julie Countiss by 210 votes after overcoming a small early lead by Countiss.
– Eric William Carter won in JP Precinct 1, while Hilary Green held on in JP Precinct 7.
– Chris Diaz romped in Constable Precinct 2, while Sherman Eagleton cruised in Constable Precinct 3.

And finally, Jarvis Johnson won in HD139, entirely on the strength of absentee ballots. Kimberly Willis won the early in-person vote as well as the Runoff Day vote, but not by a large enough margin given the modest number of people who turned out. Johnson will have the seniority advantage over his fellow freshmen thanks to his win in the special election, but this is not the kind of result that will scare anyone off for the next cycle.

Roundup of runoff candidate interviews and Q&As

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As we know, early voting for the primary runoffs begins in a week. I did my usual series of interviews and judicial Q&As for the primary, but there were a few candidates I didn’t get to for one reason or another. So, to refresh everyone’s memory and to give another chance to get acquainted with who will be on the Democratic runoff ballot, here are links to all those interviews and Q&As for your convenience. Remember that turnout in this election is likely to be quite low, so your vote really matters.

SBOE 6

Dakota Carter
Jasmine Jenkins

HD27

Rep. Ron Reynolds
Angelique Brtholomew

(Note: Rep. Reynolds declined a request for an interview.)

HD139

Kimberly Willis
Jarvis Johnson

District Judge, 11th Judicial District

Kristen Hawkins
Rabeea Collier

District Judge, 61st Judicial District

Julie Countiss
Fredericka Phillips

District Judge, 215th Judicial District

Judge Elaine Palmer
JoAnn Storey

Sheriff

Ed Gonzalez
Jerome Moore

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 1

Eric William Carter
Tanya Makany-Rivera

Runoff watch: Judicial races

There are three District Court race runoffs on the Democratic side, and two Court of Criminal Appeals runoffs for the Republicans. There are also a few Justice of the Peace runoffs, but I’ll deal with them in another post.

11th Civil District Court – Democratic

Kristen Hawkins

Kristen Hawkins

Kristem Hawkins led this three-candidate race by a wide margin, coming within 1000 votes of an outright win. Runnerup Rabeea Collier finished just 170 votes ahead of third-place candidate Jim Lewis. Given the narrowness of that margin, I’m actually a bit surprised there hasn’t been a call for a recount, but as far as I know there hasn’t been one.

Hawkins’ Q&A is here, and Collier’s is here. This race is fascinating because there’s no clear reason why it went the way it did. All three candidates were busy campaigners, and all three won endorsements from various groups, with Lewis getting the nod from the Chron. Hawkins was first on the ballot, but doesn’t appear to have been a major factor overall. Hawkins would seem to be a clear favorite in the runoff based on her near-win in March and commanding lead in vote total, but as we know this runoff is going to be a low-turnout affair. Anything can happen.

61st Civil District Court – Democratic

This three-way race saw a much more even split of the vote than the 11th did. Frontrunner Fredericka Phillips had 38%, with second-place finisher Julie Countiss scoring 35%. In third was Dion Ramos, who won a partial term for the 55th District Court in 2008, but lost it in the 2010 wipeout.

Countiss’ Q&A is here; Phillips did not send me a response. Countiss’ campaign was by far the most visible, at least to me, and she collected most of the group endorsements. Phillips is the Vice Chair of the Texas Democratic Party as well as a past candidate for the 387th District Court in 2012 in Fort Bend, under her maiden name of Petry. The Chron endorsed Ramos for March, so they’ll have to revisit this one; the same is true for the 11th, where Lewis was their initial choice. I see this race as a tossup.

215th Civil District Court – Democratic

Easily the most interesting of the judicial runoffs, and the one with the most backstory. In 2012, District Court Judge Steve Kirkland was the only incumbent judge to face a primary challenge, from attorney Elaine Palmer. Palmer’s campaign was lavishly funded by attorney George Fleming, who bore a grudge against Kirkland, and that animus made this an ugly, divisive race that Palmer ultimately won. Palmer went on to win in November, and now in 2016 she is the only incumbent judge facing a primary challenge. Three candidates filed against her, with JoAnn Storey leading the pack into overtime.

Judge Palmer’s Q&A is here, and Storey’s is here. Palmer led all the way but was never close to a majority, ending up with 43% to Storey’s 27%. If there’s a judicial race that will draw out voters, it will be this one, as Kirkland supporters, in particular the HGLBT Political Caucus, have a shot at avenging that 2012 race. Storey got most of the group endorsements for March, which in itself is remarkable given that she was challenging an incumbent, though the Caucus went with Josh Verde in Round One. I expect that will be handled for the runoff, and that I’ll be hearing from them as attention turns towards the vote. As for Palmer, if Fleming is still financing her it’s not apparent – the only report I can find for her is the January filing, for which she reported no contributions for the period. Again, this one could go either way, but I feel like Storey has a slight edge.

Court of Criminal Appeals – Republican

There are two Republican runoffs for the CCA. I’m just going to quote Grits for Breakfast about them.

Grits suggested before the primary that I’d “be watching the Sid Harle/Steve Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds.”

Short answer: They have.

Judge Harle, who arguably was the most qualified and well-respected jurist on the ballot, didn’t even make the runoff to replace Cheryl Johnson on the court. Instead, a lawyer named Scott Walker who according to press accounts had “chosen not to campaign,” led the field with 41%. He’ll face Brent Webster, who ran on an anti-abortion platform unrelated to the activities of the Court of Criminal Appeals and garnered 20.45% of the vote.

Steve Smith ran third with 19.6%, with Harle trailing at 4th with 18.5%

Walker was popular because he shares a name with the Wisconsin governor who at one point appeared to be a presidential frontrunner before the Trump phenomenon erupted. Webster, presumably, benefited from his (irrelevant) pro-life bona fides, though so little is spent on these elections I suspect most people who voted for him knew nothing at all about him.

In the race between Mary Lou Keel, Chris Oldner, and Tea Partier Ray Wheless, Keel and Wheless made the runoff. Keel led, barely, but Wheless’ base is more likely to turn out in the runoff. Keel and Oldner have disparaged Wheless, whose background is mostly in civil law, as unqualified, although Rick Perry appointed him to a district court seat.

Voters in the GOP primary clearly didn’t have a clue about these CCA races. They may as well have drawn lots for Johnson’s seat. These races are so underfunded for a state the size of Texas that candidates can’t meaningfully get their messages out and voters have no way to know anything about them.

The Walker/Webster runoff is the strongest argument in my adult lifetime for appointing judges instead of electing them. What an embarrassment.

So there you have it. As a reminder, there are Democratic candidates in each of these races. I admit, that’s unlikely to matter, but I thought I’d put it out there anyway.

Judicial Q&A: Julie Countiss

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2016 Election page.)

Julie Countiss

Julie Countiss

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

I am Julie Countiss and I’m running for Judge in the 61st District, a civil bench. I am a mother, a former teacher, and an Assistant County Attorney in the Office of the Harris County Attorney, Vince Ryan.

I believe in being prepared, diligent, respectful, humble and decisive. Those are my core values as an attorney and will certainly be important to running an efficient, fair, effective court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Generally speaking, this court hears civil cases involving matters such as personal injury, wrongful death, product liability, labor and employment, business disputes, property disputes and civil cases where the amount in controversy is $200,000 or more. This court also has the power to rule on judicial bypass requests, issue writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, injunction, certiorari, sequestration, attachment, garnishment, and all writs necessary to enforce their jurisdiction.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I practice civil litigation in the civil district courts and my father was a civil district court judge whose love of the law and judicial temperament inspired me to become an attorney. I am very familiar with how the civil courts run and with many of the judges currently on the bench in the Harris County Courthouse. The 61st was previously Democratic Judge Al Bennett’s bench until he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate this year to replace U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt as the United States District Judge for the Southern District of Texas. I chose to run for this particular bench because Governor Abbott recently appointed a Republican to fill the seat and her professional experience is far less diverse and progressive.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been an attorney for over 13 years practicing in a variety of areas including plaintiff personal injury litigation, defense litigation representing companies in the energy industry, non-profit work for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations, and pro bono immigration work representing unaccompanied minors from Central America. Currently, I practice law in the litigation section of the largest government law firm in the State of Texas, The Harris County Attorney’s Office. I represent Harris County in a wide variety of matters in federal and state court. I am also in the Nuisance Abatement Practice Group working to eliminate nuisance businesses, such as illicit spas and massage parlors that harbor human trafficking and prostitution.

I am a former teacher and served as a Teach for America Corps member in NYC from 1993-1995 teaching elementary school in the South Bronx in one of the poorest communities in the nation. During that time, I was a proud union member of the United Federation of Teachers. My experience in the classroom inspired my passion for justice, inclusiveness, community action, and public service. In the classroom, one of my core values was “the relentless pursuit of results.” It is the foundation of my work and always will be.

I am the mother of two successful teenagers who are HISD educated. My daughter will graduate from Lamar High School in May 2016 with the IB diploma and my son is a freshman. Both are actively involved with Lamar Young Democrats. Raising two children and juggling the issues that come with career, divorce, and single parenthood challenges me on all levels — like so many working families in Harris County.

I am the daughter of a retired public servant who served as a district attorney, a district court judge and an appellate court justice throughout his long career. My Dad taught me that “justice for all” means justice should be the same regardless of economic status and a judge’s role is to apply the law fairly and objectively to the absolute best of her ability.

5. Why is this race important?

Decisions are made every day in the civil district courts that impact the lives of all citizens in Harris County. Many times those decisions impact the lives of hard-working people who may or may not have access to quality legal representation. Unlike many criminal court cases, civil cases may not catch the attention of the media or the public yet the rulings made in the civil courts affect our civil rights, our careers, our homes and our pocketbooks. We need judges who are not limited in their exposure, both when it comes to application of the law, as well as their awareness of our Harris County communities and citizens. I also believe it is important to maintain a balanced judiciary and currently, out of 25 elected civil district court judges in Harris County, only 10 are Democrats.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have dedicated most of my life to public service. First as a public school teacher, and now as an Assistant County Attorney here in Harris County focused on community and consumer protection, I have fought for justice so that everyone, regardless of their background, has the chance to live out their dreams and improve their lives. What happens in our courtrooms every day resonates beyond a particular case or jurisdiction. It becomes part of our core fabric and has the potential to affect people not only throughout Harris County, but the state as well. Because very few district court decisions are appealed to a higher court, the district court is the final court in most cases. Thus, it is critical that district court judges are good legal scholars with an even temperament and an abundance of good common sense.

I am committed to working just as hard to get out the vote for the November election as I have for the primary election and I look forward to earning your vote for Judge in the 61st District. My website is www.juliecountissforjudge.com.