Texpatriate endorses for Civil District Courts

In our last but not least series of judicial endorsements, this board takes a took at Civil District Courts. Typically, these courts deal with disputes over large sums of money, but they also consider general cases regarding the constitutionality of state laws or action at the most local level. Once upon a time, they bustled with activity of individuals trying to seek justice against those who had wronged them. Sadly, since the advent of so-called tort reform, which we believe has mercilessly slammed the courthouse door shut on many, much activity in these courts has ground to a complete halt. Compared to these courts’ brethren across the street in the Criminal District Courts, which are always popping with filled dockets, the load over here is relatively light. It’s not unheard of to only have a few things all day. Our first recommendation, simply put, is to disband many of these courts for inactivity. But it’s not the Judge’s call, so we digress.

Looking at these benches, we need individuals who will be fair, knowledgeable and experienced. Those who will not be afraid of doing what is right, even if it is isn’t popular or helpful to re-election.

Additionally, we need to stipulate a general rule in our endorsement process that we broke repeatedly when coming to these decisions. Generally, we defer to incumbents unless a challenger can prove how they fail. We did not do that in this election, given not only the vast number of relatively new incumbents, but how many uniquely qualified challengers were running for benches. Many of the incumbents we did not endorse are still good Judges — who have definitively not failed at their jobs — nonetheless.

There are 11 Civil District Courts up for election this year. All of them are contested.

55th DISTRICT COURT
Our pick is Judge Jeff Shadwick, running for his second full term after getting elected in 2010. He previously served an appointee from 2007 to 2009. A Republican, he runs with courtroom with a pristine sense of fairness and equity nearly unheard of around the courthouse. Among the plethora of attorneys we contacted in our research for this race, Shadwick’s name repeatedly came up as a fair and just arbiter of the law. He is a good judge who should be rewarded by Harris County voters with another full term in office.

Kay Morgan, the Democratic candidate, is an equally well-qualified and well-tempered opponent. She would also make a good judge, but Shadwick already does his job remarkably well.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jeff Shadwick for the 55th District Court.

113th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Michael Landrum, a Republican appointee of Governor Rick Perry in 2013, has a short record a judge. Thus far, he’s done a pretty good job, but much remains to be seen. We think Harris county should go with the bird in the hand, and return Steven Kirkland to the bench instead.

Kirkland, a Democrat who served as a Civil District Court from 2009 to 2013 and has served as a Municipal Judge in the interim, ran a remarkably just and efficient courtroom throughout his years on the bench. Those who practiced in his court never had an ill-word to say. Most pressing for us, Kirkland even has a record of making rules that were right, even if they were not fair. One such ruling, a $13 Million judgment against prominent attorney George Fleming for gouging his clients, even cost him his job.

Fleming poured millions into an unqualified opponent to run against Kirkland in the Democratic primary in 2012 — as well as another in 2014 — who used homophobic and other caustic tactics in a despicable attempt to knock the noble Kirkland off of the bench. The strategy worked in 2012, but not in this year’s primary. Voters should correct this injustice, and return a great jurist to the bench.

Accordingly, this board endorses Steven Kirkland for the 113th District Court.

157th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Randy Wilson, a Republican who has served in office for three full terms, has in some respects forgot the true meaning of being an impartial adjudicator. In case after case, attorneys who practice in his court tell us that he favors big interests over smaller ones. Nothing against him personally, but that style of Judging just isn’t right for Harris County.

Jim Peacock, his Democratic opponent, is a well-respected civil litigator, who would better understand neutrality on the bench. Attorneys from across the political spectrum note his non-partisanship and objective approach to complicated disputes. He would make an all-around better judge.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jim Peacock for the 157th District Court.

189th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Bill Burke, a twelve year veteran on the court, is a fair and neutral jurist who treats all parties with respect while objectively considering their cases. An active Republican, he notoriously checks his politics at the door and fairly considers all the cases before his court.

Ursula Hall, a longtime Municipal Judge and the Democratic candidate for this bench, is indubitably well-qualified to be a fantastic Judge. Hall also is active in promoting fairness throughout the entire legal system, embodying progressive values in a way that is constructive but not detrimental to her impartiality as a judge. The choice between her and Burke is a tough one.

On the balance, we tend to think that if the court isn’t broken, don’t fix it, so we will stick it out with Burke. But we fully encourage our readers to consider if your priority is a progressive mindset on the bench rather than merely a well-tempered Judge. If that is the type of official you are looking for, Hall is your candidate.

Accordingly, this board endorses Bill Burke for the 189th District Court.

190th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Patricia Kerrigan often makes her courtroom a hostile place for plaintiffs small in size, sometimes playing irresponsible favorites for the corporation or insurance company. However, our misgivings with her do not end just at her service as a jurist.

Kerrigan has been on the bench since 2007, but she had a long career before that in private practice. The attorneys with whom we consulted with to reach these decisions all similarly lamented the cases they worked on involving Kerrigan, deriding her as dishonest in the practice in law. We have some serious concerns that this dishonesty may not have subsided following her transition to the judiciary.

The Democratic candidate, Farrah Martinez, is a well-qualified and tempered attorney. She would honestly and fairly uphold the law if elected. We strongly encourage Harris County to make that a reality.

Accordingly, this board endorses Farrah Martinez for the 190th District Court.

234th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Wesley Ward was first appointed to the bench by Perry in 2012. Much like Judge Landrum before him, we have nothing but nice things to say of Ward, but he is still largely untested as a jurist. In the limited circumstances we can judge so far, though, Ward has demonstrated himself as a force to be reckoned within the Civil Courts. If your priority is the efficient operation of the courts, and for competent judges to serve, Ward is your choice.

But we also like Barbara Gardner, the Democratic candidate. She brings up a few troubling points about the incumbent’s operation of the court, including resetting cases for trial a few too many times and possibly being too reluctant to adjudicate disputes. All in all, though, her strongest points are her long resume and experience as a civil litigator. Gardner makes good points about the courts in general being too anti-consumer, which we absolutely agree with her about. She also points to the surplus of experience she has compared to her competitor. Thus, we think she would be the superior Judge.

Accordingly, we endorse Barbara Gardner for the 234th District Court.

269th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Dan Hinde is arguably known as the most intellectual of any Civil District Judge in Harris County. However, what he possesses in brainpower, he evidently lacks in certain judicial ethics. A few years back, Hinde got in trouble for improperly finding the addresses of candidates in the jury pools, then sending campaign materials to their homes. A columnist at the Houston Chronicle opined that he may have committed a felony. Many around the city may have forgotten, but we surely remember. Hinde, a Republican, also has a reputation, like many other Judges, to improperly favor big defendants over little plaintiffs.

George Arnold, a Democrat, would be a fairer and more ethical judge. With more than two decades of the practice of civil law under his belt, he would be able to capably interpret the law and fulfill his judicial activities. He fully expect him to be a fairer adjudicator, as well one who will not abuse his office for political purposes.

Accordingly, this board endorses George Arnold for the 269th District Court.

270th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Brent Gamble, who has served four terms in office, is ready to retire. A Republican, he regularly rules against the little guy and is just not a good jurist for the people of Harris County.

The Democrat, James Hippard Jr, should sound familiar to every lawyer in Houston. His father, James Hippard Sr, was a hero in the local integration movement and a venerated Professor at the University of Houston School of Law. Like his father, Hippard strives to fight for the everyday Texan throughout his practice of law. Seeking deference for neither rich or poor, Hippard would be a fair and noble Judge if elected. With many decades of experience as both an attorney and law professor, he would also be ready to hit the ground running on day one.

Accordingly, this board endorses James Hippard Jr. for the 270th District Court.

281st DISTRICT COURT
Judge Sylvia Matthews, a Republican who has served for six years, is an adequate Judge. But her Democratic opponent, Tanner Garth, would likely be an even better Judge. With decades of experience, Garth would be both just as qualified as the incumbent but compassionate and open-minded in ways she just would not.

A business-litigator by trade, Matthews has a history of representing the big entities looking to clamp down on activity at the courthouse. A personal injury trial lawyer, Garth seeks the opposite. He has a history of helping people who have been wronged by seeking out justice for those who have been wronged. It is a noble background, one Harris County could simply use more thereof.

Accordingly, this board endorses Tanner Garth for the 281st District Court.

295th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Caroline Baker has a passable record on the bench. On the bench for about six years, she has developed the same reputation for arguably being a little preferential to bigger business interests. Harris County definitely has a good judge with Baker, a Republican, but they could have a great judge if they selected her Democratic opponent, Latosha Lewis.

An environmental lawyer by trade, Lewis has direct experience in litigating torts for those who have been wronged by malice or negligence. She understands that these cases are about more than just numbers and statistics; they are about people. Recognized by Texas Monthly as one of the top lawyers in the State every year for the past seven years, she would — without a doubt — be a fantastic addition to the courts.

Accordingly, this board endorses Latosha Lewis for the 295th District Court.

334th DISTRICT COURT
We find both the Republican incumbent, Grant Dorfman, and the Democratic opponent, Daryl Morre, to be rather well qualified and well versed contenders. Our preference of one over the other one is somewhat hard, as they are both good options. Ultimately, we think that Moore, a plaintiff’s attorney and son of a prominent labor activities, would be the better choice. We recommend a vote for Moore.

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 voting board.

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Texpatriate’s Questions for Wesley Ward

Editorial note: This is the thirteenth 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>.

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Judge Wesley Ward, 234th District Court

Texpatriate: What is your name?
WW: My name is Wesley Ward, and I serve as Judge of Texas’ 234th District Court. The Court is a trial court handling a broad docket of civil disputes, and my district covers all of Harris County.

T: How long have your held this post? What number term are you seeking?
WW: I have served as Judge of the 234th since 2012, when I was appointed to replace the previous retiring judge, and was confirmed unanimously in a bi-partisan vote of the Texas Senate. I am seeking election to a four-year term.

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
WW: This is the first time that I have ever held a political office. Before becoming a Judge, I was a civil litigation attorney here in Houston, and I held several significant positions in legal and charitable groups:

Chair – Houston Bar Association Litigation Section

Co-Chair – Houston Bar Association Professionalism Committee

Co-Chair – HBA Fun Run Committee benefitting The Center serving persons with developmental disabilities

Chair – HBA Mentor-Protégé program

Life Member – Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Captain – HLSR Team Penning and Ranch Sorting Committee

Chair – Associate’s Roundtable, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

T: What is your political party?
WW: I am a Republican. With my qualifications and track record of running a fair and efficient courtroom I have also attracted significant support from attorneys and citizens of all types of political affiliations, backgrounds, and law practice & business types.

T: Please describe a notable case you have presided over while on the bench. What rulings did you make? What were the implications of the case?
WW: In the time that I have served as Judge, I have presided over more than 50 trials, the second-most of any Harris County Civil District Court in that period. Every one of the cases was significant in its own way. From a jury award of $550.41 in chiropractic bills to a dispute over $50 Million in oil and gas damages, every party, attorney, witness, and juror who comes into the 234th can expect a courteous, civil, prompt, and fair resolution of their dispute, in accordance with the law. For each and every one of those cases, it is probably one of the most important events in their lives at that time, and I pledge to treat each case accordingly as long as I am the Judge.

T: Have there been any high profile cases in which the Court of Appeals or the Texas Supreme Court reversed your ruling? What were the parameters of the case?
WW: There have not been any significant reversals of any of my decisions.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
WW: I am highly qualified, have a proven successful track record, and am supported by a broad bi-partisan cross-section of the legal community.

My qualifications include being an acclaimed civil litigation attorney, a Certified Public Accountant, Eagle Scout, National Merit Scholar, Graduate with Honors from UT Law School, leader in the Houston bar, and active leader in community and charitable events.

During my time on the bench, I have performed as one of the top civil district judges in our county in terms of number of jury trials, number of bench trials, total trials, total days in trial, and lowest case/docket backlog. My hard work has been rated positively in the HBA judicial polls where I received “Outstanding” marks in all categories: follows the law, rules decisively and timely, demonstrates impartiality, is courteous and attentive toward attorneys and witnesses, works hard and is prepared, and uses attorneys time efficiently.

In the HBA Judicial Qualification poll, I was rated “Well-Qualified” by a more than 2-to-1 margin over my opponent.

Supporters of my campaign include 14 past Presidents of the Houston Bar Association and hundreds of local attorneys representing every kind of practice area, background, firm type and political affiliation. More than 100 local law firms are supporting my campaign. A list of my endorsements and supporters is on my website: www.wesleyward.com.

T: What role do you think a Civil District Judge should have individually? What role do you think the Civil District Courts should have as a whole?
WW: My role as a Civil District Court Judge is to provide fair and efficient justice to every party who comes before the Court. Every day when I take the bench, there are 3 signs on the door that I pass through: The first reminds me of important values that I hold – “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” The second is a checklist of areas that judges should be mindful of in doing their jobs: “Follows the Law, Rules Decisively & Timely, Demonstrates Impartiality, Is Courteous & Attentive Toward Attorneys & Witnesses, Works Hard & Is Prepared, and Uses Attorneys Time Efficiently.” The third on is a mantra that a wise and experienced judge passed on to me when I first started: “Be quick to rule and slow to judge.”

In response to the last part of the question, Judges must work together without regard to party affiliation or other differences to ensure that our Harris County courts continue to work for the good of our justice system and our community. I have been very gratified to experience the bipartisan collegiality of our Harris County Civil District Courts, working together to provide the best justice we can.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
WW: In Texas, our legislative process, with citizen input, has decided that judges should be elected in periodic partisan elections. As the current law of the State, I support it. I also believe that judges should be accountable to citizens, and I very much enjoy discussing my service with voters. I do support an open dialogue of various proposals to modify our judicial selection process, but as long as it is the law of the State of Texas I will be a willing participant.

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?

  1. Efficiency – Since I became the Judge, the 234th is one of our county’s leading courts in terms of working hard to reduce our case backlog by staying busy with bench trials and jury trials. I have also created and started using a powerpoint presentation for my instructions during jury selection, to improving comprehension, streamlining the jury selection process and providing more efficient use of jurors’ time.
  2. Fairness – Running through a lot of cases doesn’t mean a thing if the cases aren’t handled justly and fairly. I and all of the staff of the 234th are always conscious of the importance of every case to the parties involved, and we work hard to get all parties the fair hearing they deserve. Polls of attorneys who practice in our Court indicate that we are doing a good job of handling our cases fairly and impartially.
  3. The Future – I think that Judges should do all they can to make sure the future of our civil justice system is in order. Before I took the bench, I was very active in programs to encourage mentorship of newer attorneys in how to act with civility and professionalism. Since becoming a Judge, I have continued my interest in mentoring law students. This summer, I located 5 outstanding students from our local law schools (University of Houston, South Texas College of Law, and Thurgood Marshall School of Law), and from UT Law School, who worked as interns. With all of those students back in school, I am once again looking for law students to help out with the Court and to show them the importance of a fair and efficient civil court system.