Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who said he did not vote in judicial elections. We talked some more and I am glad to say- he decided to vote. As the voter data has come in following the March primary, I was struck by the number of undervotes in judicial races. It appears that my friend was far from alone. Undervotes refer to voters who turn out for an election, but don’t vote in all races. The races these voters skip are called under votes. Typically, undervotes happen when voters do not have enough information to make a decision in a race.
I respect the fact that people do not want to cast uninformed votes and I think the obligation to inform them about the 47th District Court falls on me.
The 47th District Court was designated as the 47th because it was the 47th district court created in Texas and first district court in our area. Because population was smaller at the time, it was created to cover Potter, Randall and Armstrong Counties. Although, four other district courts were created later, the 47th is the only court covering three counties and serving more than 250,000 people. It is literally the granddaddy of district courts in this area.
The 47th District Court is a court of general jurisdiction. It hears civil matters with no dollar limits. There are currently about 400 civil matters pending in the court. By civil matters, I mean disputes over property, money or personal injuries to include things like estate matters, construction disputes, professional liability contracts, and a myriad of other things. This has been my primary area of practice for almost 32 years. When they reach trial civil matters are decided by a jury of 12. They are determined based of the preponderance of the evidence or the “more likely than not” standard. Verdicts need not be unanimous and can be as divided as 10 to 2. In civil matters, judges hear motions, set deadlines, and all determine evidentiary or procedural issues. Civil matters can be complex because they involve multiple discovery matters such as depositions (sworn testimony outside of court) which are not allowed in criminal matters, motions for summary judgment, motions in limine, and a variety of pretrial issues in cases involving a myriad of facts and various causes of action.
The 47th also hears criminal and family matters. We have a district attorney in Randall County and one in Potter County who also serves Armstrong County. Each of the three counties has a courthouse and the sitting judge travels to all three places for all types of cases pending in the court.
We rely heavily upon our police and sheriff to arrest people who threaten society by breaking our laws. At this stage a magistrate and/or judge sets bail and the prosecutor prepares the case to present to a Grand Jury. If the Grand Jury indicts a defendant, the judge helps the attorneys formulate a schedule, plan for trial, and if necessary, appoints counsel. It is necessary for the judge to determine various motions like motions to suppress evidence and frame the issues to be determined by a jury at trial. In about 90% of cases a plea agreement is reached. The other approximately 10% of cases will go to trial in front of 12 jurors. In criminal matters the verdict must be unanimous and meet a beyond reasonable doubt standard. As the case progresses through trial, the court considers evidentiary and procedural issues under the law. If the prosecution meets this no reasonable doubt standard and the jury convicts, sentencing occurs. Sometimes sentencing is determined by a jury and sometimes it is determined by the court. There may be post-trial motions and writs, but for the most part, further disputes are decided by the appellate courts.
All of this may be “TMI” for most of you, but I think an understanding of the legal process helps some to better understand a judge’s role. Some of you may say “I will never be in court, so none of this applies to me” but life has a funny way of throwing us curve balls. Even if you are fortunate enough to avoid becoming a defendant or party to a lawsuit the actions of a district judge affect you. A judge’s decisions can determine whether someone charged with a crime remains on the streets or goes to jail. A good judge will deliver a swift and just result under the law. This also means that defendants will not remain in jail too long at taxpayer expense. A good judge can protect people from a wrongful lawsuit and help injured parties to be made whole. A good judge can improve your daily life and a bad one can make it more difficult or less safe.
Beginning May 16 and ending May 24, you will have the opportunity to choose the next judge of the 47th District Court. I hope you will study the information provided by the candidates and others in this race. I would be honored to be your choice and I pray that each one of you will vote in the upcoming runoff election.