CAMPAIGN '80 ** JUDICIAL
HOW TO JUDGE
Voters need a crash course in the third arm of the government.
Fewer than half of us who show up to
vote at the polls vote in the judicial races.
The irony is that the people we elect to
these offices make decisions that directly
affect our lives. Legislators do write our
laws, but judges regularly interpret,
define and apply these laws. Judges can
dismiss our rape cases, they take away
our children, our property, or our freedom. By any standard, they wield significant power in our society.
On November 4, voters will be expected
to know what goes on in district court
and county court, the difference between
a criminal court and a civil court, which
judges know the law, and which ones are
asleep at the bench.
Most of what the electorate has to
know in order to consider judicial candidates intelligently is not a matter of public record. Attorneys and prosecutors do
not want to jeopardize themselves or
their clients by making negative public
statements about an incumbent judge
or an opponent. The judicial system is
no more familiar to the layperson than
are the personalities behind the courtroom doors. What a voter needs is a crash
course in the third arm of the government.
The Texas court system can be pictured as a five-tiered pyramid with the
Justice of the Peace and Municipal Courts
at the very bottom. JP courts are trial
courts with limited jurisdiction (Offenses
where the punishment is $200 or less).
Municipal courts hear cases involving violations of city ordinances The next step
up is the county courts, trial courts with
limited original, and some appellate, jurisdiction.
On the third tier are the district courts,
general trial courts hearing more serious
cases, with original and some appellate
jurisdiction. Above the district courts sit
the 14 intermediate appellate courts
which hear only cases on appeal, with
minor technical exceptions. At the very
top are the supreme court and the court
of criminal appeals. These are the state's
appellate courts of last resort.
There are two types of cases that move
through the courts, criminal cases and
civil cases. In Texas, a crime is an offense
committed against the community, ranging from writing worthless checks and
smoking pot to felonies such as murder,
kidnapping and rape. Civil courts hear
everything except criminal cases, that is,
private disputes, usually between two
people and usually business-related. Civil
cases include insurance cases, breach of
Judith Goodkin is a freelance writer.
-BY JUDITH GOODKIN-
contract, divorce, probate matters and
All state and county court judges are
elected. Technically. In fact, judges dutifully retire mid-term, allowing the governor to pick a successor. Traditionally,
appointees run unopposed in the following election. This practice has given the
state a majority of Democratic judges,
and the Governor of Texas the power to
appoint the judiciary without a mandate
from the people.
Even this year, with rumors of a Republican sweep in Texas, only 23 of the
47 judicial races are being contested. All
but one of the uncontested candidates is
Locally, the most hotly contested
judicial races are for the family and juvenile benches with Clements-appointed
Family and juvenile courts are distinct
from other courts because decisions and
dispositions (sentencing) are left to the
discretion of the judge. "It's not black
and white in family courts," explains one
attorney, "so much is left to the discretion of the judge, and that is translatable
as power. How a judge thinks about
women, for example, may color how decisions are made to determine a property
split or custody."
More than with any other court,
attorneys stress the importance of a qualified, humane judge on the family court
bench. "Unless you have practiced family
law," said one attorney, "you cannot see
the effect of judgments on people's lives."
Appealing cases from family and juvenile courts is more difficult than appealing from other courts, because, as an attorney laments, "It is almost impossible
to appeal the 'discretion of the judge' and
most defendants in family courts cannot
afford the appeal process."
Juvenile courts, the most obscure and
fascinating of the family courts, hear
child-abuse cases, adoptions and cases
concerning delinquent conduct. A juvenile is a child aged 10 through 16. A
juvenile court judge can hold a non-juried
certification hearing to determine if a
juvenile, over age 15, accused of a serious
crime, should be certified to stand trial as
314th Family District Court
In the race for the 314th Family District court, a juvenile court, incumbent
Robert B. Baum (R) is being challenged
by Geraldine (Gerry) B. Tennant (D).
Running against an eminently qualified
woman, Baum has nevertheless garnered
strong support from some feminists be-
314th Family District (Juvenile) Court:
Republican incumbent Judge Robert Baum
314th Family District (Juvenile) Court:
Democratic challenger Geraldine Tennant
cause of his long-time support of the ERA,
Baum has a reputation as a "hanging
judge," leaning to the state's side in certification hearings. In July, the appellate
court reversed one of Baum's decisions to
certify a juvenile as an adult. (Baum had
denied this defendant's request for a mental fitness hearing to determine if the
defendant was mentally fit to proceed
to trial.) Baum is also faulted, by lawyers
who practiced in his court, for his lack of
experience in juvenile matters and his
lack of knowledge of family law. Baum
counters that he has over one year's
active judicial experience hearing juvenile
cases and he has a good knowledge of
community services available to rehabilitate juveniles.
Tennant's supporters say she has more
juvenile law experience. She was the Referee for the three juvenile courts for 6Y2
years, resigning to resume her law practice and file for this election. The Referee
holds hearings at the Detention Center
where juveniles await their court date.
(There is no bond for juveniles.) "I have
seen thousands of juveniles and their
families, and I know the resources available to them," Tennant asserts.
Tennant is endorced by the Association of Women Attorneys (see box), one
of whose members noted the absence of
women on the family court bench. On
this issue Tennant says, "Ideally, your
background shouldn't influence your decisions, but you do have sympathy with
what you've experienced. I know what
it's like to rear three children alone. Your
background has some bearing. It has to."
309th Family District Court
Alvin L. Zimmerman (R) a former civil
lawyer, is being challenged by A. Robert
Hinojosa (D) a family law specialist, for
the 309th Family District Court. Experience is the issue in this race.
"Before Alvin Zimmerman was appointed he was never in a family court,"
says one attorney. "He was never on the
other side of the bench. If you practice a
certain type of law, you know how to
make procedure calls and have a familiarity with current case law. Frequently a
judge doesn't have time to do research."
Another dissatisfied family attorney declares, "it is appalling to me that Judge
Zimmerman was appointed without experience, and is learning on the job."
Zimmerman, recognized as likeable
and pro-family, even by his opponents,
comments, "I will stand on my record. I
have heard and disposed of over 1,000
cases in my six months on the bench. A
judge must be responsible, caring, and
have compassion. A specialty in family
law doesn't test compassion."
Hinojosa has practiced family law for
11 years and is a family law specialist. He
is endorsed by the Association of Women
Attorneys (see box).
Association of Women Attorneys
The Association of Women Attorneys
has endorsed eight candidates for
judge in the November 4 election. The
endorsements reflect the Association's
decision to become more active in the
promotion of judicial candidates,
as well as its ongoing committment
to promote recognition of women
attorneys and to eliminate discrimination against women attorneys.
The three women and six men were
endorsed by the Association on the
basis of qualifications, judicial temperament and knowledge of the law
applicable to the position sought:
Pat Lykos County Crim. Ct. No. 10
Geraldine Tennant 314th Juv. Dist. Ct.
Sherlyn Woods 113th Civil Dist. Ct.
Ed Landry County Civil Ct. No. 2
Robert Hinojosa 309th Fam. Dist. Ct.
Lynn Hughes 165th Civil Dist. Ct.
Ken Harrison 151st Civil Dist. Ct.
Miron Love 177th Crim. Dist. Ct.
Jack Smith First Ct. of Civil Appeals
Supreme Court and
Court of Criminal Appeals
The highest courts of appeal in the
State are the Supreme Court, which hears
civil cases, and the Court of Criminal
Appeals, which hears criminal cases. Both
courts sit in Austin and have a chief justice and eight associate justices elected
for six-year staggered terms. The salary
for an associate justice on either high
court is $52,400.
The three candidates for judge, Court
of Criminal Appeals, are running unopposed. Of the four races for Associate
Justice, Supreme Court, two are being
The Court of Civil Appeals is an intermediate civil court between the trial
courts and the supreme court. At present,
this court hears civil cases only, but a
"yes" vote on constitutional amendment
number 8, further down the ballot, gives
the civil court of appeals criminal jurisdiction and changes the court's name.