Texpatriate endorses in County Civil Judgeships

The four County Civil Courts at Law in Harris County constitute special places. The arbiter of civil disputes ranging from $200 to $200,000, they serve an interesting role in the legal system. Above Justice of the Peace courts and other small claims divisions (to which they serve as an appeal setting), they often represent monetary disputes that could make or break a person’s livelihood. But below the hefty price ceiling set, they mostly involve disputes between people and not huge corporations. Like their brethren across the street in County Criminal Courts, these Judges’ courtrooms are truly where the rubber meets the road of government.

Both the Republican incumbent Judges and the Democratic challengers are qualified to serve in the role. However, the courts consist of far more than simply a rosy, romanticized setting for citizens to bring their individual monetary disputes to court. Debt collection is a common feature, as are eviction hearings. Eminent domain hearings, as well as the proposals to receive an occupational driver’s license (almost always after the forfeit of one following a DWI) are also covered by the court. For these issues, in addition to qualifications, Judges are needed with the right temperament. Judges are needed who will be, in a word, compassionate.

Things such as board certification, age, law school and political campaign viability are not criteria that any reasonable person should ever prioritize in making these selections. With very few exceptions, the individuals recruited by the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, to run for judicial posts are qualified attorneys. Their distinctions do not materialize themselves on their resumes, but upon their policy records.

For these and other reasons, we have decided to go with the three Democrats running in contested races. While the incumbents are well-qualified, we simply believe that their opponents are better poised to oversee a courtroom of compassion and equity, in addition to law and justice. Judge Debra Mayfield, a Republican incumbent running unopposed for County Civil Court at Law #1, is a qualified jurist who deserves your vote as well.

Judge Theresa Chang has had a unique background before getting into the judiciary. A Republican, she served briefly as the Harris County District Clerk from 2007 to 2008. Indisputably qualified, we have concerns nonetheless about her compassion and temperament on the bench. Furthermore, numerous attorneys who have practiced in her court have voiced concern about rather nonchalant practices that limit voire dire, otherwise known as the selection of juries. For the invaluable component of all trial work, it has been alleged that Chang sometimes limits these sessions, often known to take entire mornings, to less than an hour. Such a move for expediency’s sake is not one any court in Harris County should ever make.

The Democratic candidate, Scot Dollinger, would be — in our opinion — a far more compassionate alternative. He would not merely make choices on the basis of “judicial economy,” but would look out for the individual interests of those with business before his court. In speaking with the editorial board, Dollinger outlined an ambitious plan to consolidate much of the work of County Civil Courts, allowing them to work together in what he calls a “unit” to solve the more complex problems. We certainly think it is a good idea, one that deserves full consideration.

Moreover, he would be far less likely to impose his ideology into court proceedings. For example, state law allows for those with forfeited drivers licenses following DWI arrests to receive occupational licenses, that is allowing the operation of a car in limited circumstances, after a brief hearing. While some judges make a point of using the bench as a soapbox for lectures on moral values, we think Dollinger would simply follow the law and competently provide due process –without the fanfare.

Accordingly, this board endorses Scot Dollinger for Harris County Civil Court at Law #2.

Judge Linda Storey is seeking her third term in office, representing this all-important court. A Republican, she has done an adequate job on the bench, and if your number one priority is protecting the court system from any bumps or transitional pains, we recommend a vote for the incumbent. She knows the law, usually applies it within her legal bounds and effectively manages her docket.

However, like the above contest, we simply think that her Democratic opponent, Gloria Minnick, is far better situated to deal with the issues arising in this court with compassion and pragmatism. Minnick is obviously also well-qualified to be a Judge; she has practiced law in both the public and private sector for more than two decades.

In courts such as this one, it is not uncommon to hear dozens of eviction hearings in one sitting. On this issue and others like it, our first choice is obviously who would be well-suited to rule on the law. But, given that both candidates would be well qualified in that distinction, we have decided to go with who would maintain a humanistic approach to the issue rather than just one of black letter law. Texas has made the choice to elect its judges because, among other reasons, we have decided as a state to allow all voters — and not just attorneys — to choose who should make legal rulings on our behalf. To represent the people and the law, the choice is clear.

Accordingly, this board endorses Gloria Minnick for Harris County Civil Court at Law #3.

Judge Roberta Lloyd is likewise seeking her third full term in office. A longtime attorney with the Harris County Attorney’s office, she is uniquely qualified to be in this position. Serving multiple times as the administrative judge for these courts, Lloyd, a Republican, demonstrably knows the intricacies of this type of law. However, much like the other contested contests, we think that the citizens of Harris County would be nominally better off with change.

Lloyd’s husband serves as an adviser to County Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4), an individual on the body charged with overseeing these courts, the same body that even originally appointed Lloyd to the bench (Editorial note: Com. Cagle was not serving at the time that Judge Lloyd was first appointed). Alone, this tidbit would be a rather venial offense, but it is part of a greater pattern for Lloyd. Recent bar association polls rated her poorly and lawyers who do business before her court often complain.

The Democratic candidate, Damon Crenshaw, seeks to be the polar opposite. He has been endorsed by active bar association groups, such as the Mexican-American Bar Association and the Association of Women Attorneys, which have tended this election cycle to cautiously endorse Republican incumbents. Crenshaw has more than 25 years of experience as an attorney, making her qualified to serve much like Lloyd. However, unlike the incumbent Judge, this board strongly believes that Crenshaw would be a powerful force for compassion in the courts and pragmatism on the bench.

Accordingly, this board endorses Damon Crenshaw for Harris County Civil Court at Law #4.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the board.

Texpatriate’s Questions for Scot Dollinger

Editorial note: This is the seventeenth in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <info@texpate.com>.

Scot Dollinger, Democratic candidate for County Civil Court at Law #2

Texpatriate: What is your name?
SD: Scot Gibbons Dollinger

T: What office are you seeking?
SD: Judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 2

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
SD: None

T: What is your political party?
SD: Democrat

T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by your incumbent?
SD: In Cause No. 1050447 Williams Apartments v. Tiffany Franklin the judge improperly allowed the Plaintiff (a legal entity) to be represented without an attorney. This practice is ongoing in other cases. As well, the judge is not properly following the rules for setting supercedeas bonds on appeal showing a bias in favor of landlords and not properly following the rule of law.

T: What is a contentious issue that you belief the Court will face in the near future? Why is it important? How would you solve it?
SD: Improperly allowing legal entities to represent themselves without lawyers in county court at law. It is important because the rule of law requires legal entities in county court at law to have lawyers. As well, the law of supercedeas bonds needs to be followed. I would solve the problem by requiring all legal entities to have a lawyer absent clear authority authorizing action without counsel and I would follow the law governing supercedeas bonds.

T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
SD: Yes. The law is clear for not allowing legal entity representation in county court at law without counsel. Even the judge acknowledged in our Houston Chronicle interview that it was an improper practice. She said she advises legal entities that they have to have an attorney and re-sets the cases. However, in reviewing eviction court files from January 1, 2014 to date, I can find no such practice in eviction cases. I found no re-sets. I found no admonition to non-represented entities. I found no such statements in the court’s procedures. As well, there are cases where the court is ignoring pauper affidavits which directly impact the filing of supercedeas bonds. By so acting, the court is demonstrating a landlord bias against tenants. No judge should be biased. If the court is biased here, one wonders in what other ways the court is biased.

As well, the court tells lawyers in general they have 15 to 20 minutes to pick a jury in her court. Any experienced trial attorney will tell you that 15 to 20 minutes is not enough time to properly pick a jury. As was stated by James Madison – “In suits at common law, trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
SD: We need a different judge with my administrative and trial background. I have been representing individuals of all races, religions, sexual orientations and genders in civil matters my entire 25 plus year career. My opponent has not had this kind of experience. Instead, she has worked for Harris County or the City of Houston (institutions) her entire legal career giving her a certain level of bias in favor of establishment institutions. This bias is manifested in Judge Chang’s improper practice of allowing legal entities to represent themselves in County Court without a lawyer and not following the law when it comes to fairly setting supercedeas bonds in eviction cases.

This court handles eminent domain cases involving Harris County. I do not think this court should have a judge that used to work for Harris County and was appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Currently, the four civil county courts at law work independently of each other in the sense of having different procedures in each court. If elected, I would work with all the other judges to strive to have uniform procedures in all four courts to bring uniformity of procedure to all four courts and to increase predictability of outcomes.

Currently, the county courts at law are not under the JIMS computer system that manages access to county documents. All the District Courts are under JIMS. The civil county courts at law and probate courts have their own computer system for viewing documents. This method is duplication of effort. It should be noted that the criminal county courts at law are under the JIMS system. So, there is no reason not to move the rest of the county courts at law over to JIMS. As well, the county court database is not being properly used to establish a set of metrics to study the caseload of these courts. One sets metrics or gathers data in the database to measure levels of productivity. The current computer system either needs to be properly used at the encouragement of the judges or the county courts at law need to fall under the JIMS system and authority of the District Clerk in terms of case management. There is no reason for the county courts at law to be separately managed unless they are being managed in a much better way which they are not. The judges play a role in helping to cast the vision for management of these courts. Currently, the judges’ vision is lacking in my view.

Currently, the sitting judge tells lawyers via her procedures that she generally gives them 15 to 20 minutes to conduct voir dire (pick a jury). http://www.ccl.hctx.net/civil/2/procedures.htm#motions Any experienced trial lawyer will tell you that 15 to 20 minutes is not enough time to properly pick a jury to determine if they are biased or prejudiced against the case. It is illegal for lawyers to strike jurors based on race. Lawyers need the time to properly test for this problem under the Batson case law. An experienced trial lawyer like me is more sensitive to Batson violations and the need to properly question a panel and spend the time necessary to properly pick a jury.

I believe I am the person who has the best combination of administrative and court room trial skills to run an excellent court. I have handled large case loads, written programs to handle large caseloads, created database systems, tried over 40 trials and worked on over 10 appeals. This court needs an excellent administrative judge and also an excellent trial judge to be properly run so that everyone is treated fairly: Fair access to a fair forum.

T: What role do you think a County Civil Judge should have individually?

SD: Individually, a County Civil Judge should be fair minded and desire to treat everyone fairly and lead by example. He should have good temperament and be approachable. He should be decisive and efficient and at the same time be willing to give people the time they need to properly present their case. These two goals are constantly competing: 1. Resolving disputes quickly, 2. Taking the time to properly resolve disputes. We can never forget that right outcomes (justice) matters. A quickly made, wrong decision is no good. I think Leviticus 19:15 sums things up nicely: “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”

T: What role do you think the County Civil Courts should have as a whole?
SD: There are four civil county courts in Harris County numbered 1, 2, 3 & 4. The county civil courts handle the following caseloads:

– 60% debt collection/contract disputes

– 17% injury cases

– 15% eviction cases

– 4% occupational licenses

– 3% eminent domain

– 1% tax and tow

All four courts should work as a unit. The judges should work together to have common practices and procedures so that the parties have common procedures regardless of the courts. These courts should be models of efficiency and due process. They should shine. Unfortunately, in my view, these courts are under-performing because they do not work as a unit and have little administrative vision to improve.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
SD: Justice is not about Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. Justice is about right outcomes. Justice is about consensus building and resolving disputes fairly without bias, sympathy or prejudice. Though I am running as a Democrat, I certainly know and believe that I can and will be fair to all people regardless of their party and regardless of their political philosophies. Is the debt owed or not? Is not a political issue. Is an eviction proper or not? Is not a political issue. Therefore, I would prefer the non-partisan election of judges. But I also think with the right kind of judge, a judge can be fair whether Democrat or Republican. In my life, I have seen both.

T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
SD: Legal Entities Not Having Lawyers

I have brought attention to the issue of improperly allowing legal entities to not have lawyers in county court at law. I have brought this problem to the attention of the Houston Chronicle and bar leaders. I have documented the improper practice. I am running for office to fix this problem. I will put an end to the practice if elected.

Allowing Only 15 to 20 Minutes to Pick a Jury

I have brought attention to the issue of only allowing 15 to 20 minutes to select a jury. I have brought this problem to the attention of the Houston Bar Association. I am running for office to fix this problem. I will put an end to the practice if elected.

Under-utilization of Database Management Systems

I have also retrieved database information from the county court at law database managers and confirmed that the software is being under-utilized. I am prepared to move forward with a better system: either shift over to the District Clerks office JIMS system or improve the county court at law’s system by entering metric data. I also have discussed these issues with past clerks of the court to confirm that there is a better way. Fundamentally, one has to ask whether one wants a caretaker like the present judge with limited vision or an innovator like me with my skill set and vision for making these courts shine. I have the gift for administration and excellent trial skills. I am very comfortable in a court room. My website is www.dolli4judge.com Thank you for taking the time to read these materials and consider voting for me.