Six criminal court judges elected during the 2018 blue wave lost to party rivals in Tuesday’s primary election, leaving the path to the November midterms uncertain as bail and the courts backlog dominate the conversation about Harris County’s beleaguered criminal justice system.
Another judge will be in a runoff.
The seven were among dozens tapped four years ago in the straight-ticket voting surge that cleared Republicans judges from their benches. Bail was not as large of a concern then.
Bail may mean the world in the November election but for the primaries — not so much, Brandon Rottinghaus, professor in University of Houston’s Department of Political Science, said of this week’s election.
Rottinghaus suspects Democratic operatives pitted candidates against incumbents, fearing that those judges would not be tough enough on criminal justice issues to stand up to their Republican challengers. As the homicide per capita rate began increasing in 2020, the decisions by some judges in high-profile criminal cases routinely caught the ire of victim advocates and law enforcement.
“They worried November would be worse because Republicans would certainly bring that up,” he said.
One of the narrowest races in the primary left incumbent Judge Amy Martin trailing opponent Melissa Morris by 1 point — effectively ending her time in the 263rd District Court in nine months.
Martin, in her court chambers, on Wednesday said she knew little about her opponent — a private practice attorney — or why she fell short on votes. A final count Thursday shows Martin trailed Morris by 2,520 votes.
“I am just glad it’s over,” Martin said of the election.
As votes were finalized, five more criminal judges lost their seats: Chuck Silverman in the 183rd lost to Gemayel Haynes and Abigail Anastasio in the 184th to Katherine Thomas. In the misdemeanor courts, Franklin Bynum lost to Erika Ramirez and David Singer to Je’Rell Rogers.
Jason Luong, judge in the 185th District Court, is expected to take on Harris County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor Andrea Beall in a runoff election. A runoff is also expected in the 208 District Court but incumbent Judge Greg Glass came in third and two other candidates will battle over the seat.
Of the four judges who spoke to the Chronicle, none said they lost because of any particular reason.
“The primary process is an open process and people are taking advantage of that to run,” said Luong, the county’s first Asian American jurist.
“Sometimes really good judges get unseated for reasons that have nothing to do with their abilities or job performance as judges,” he continued. “That’s one of the effects of having judges elected — and having an open primary.”
Political observers, including Rottinghaus, noted that judicial races are often off the radar and uninformed voters may often pick judges based on name, gender or perceived ethnicity.
A small number of voters do their homework on judges.
“While most voters don’t know anything about the differences between the judges, a small group of sophisticated voters do and can have an impact,” said Mark Jones, Rice University political science professor. “It’s really just random.”
Those in-the-know voters could make or a break a primary race, he added.
Many of the Democratic opponents, Rottinghaus noted, hailed from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, while others worked in the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. Many have private practices, Texas Bar records show.
In Martin’s race, Morris — a former state Senate candidate — touted endorsements and criminal law experience. Debate over felony bail and the criminal court backlogs were absent in her campaign pages ahead of the primary race. The backlog stems from Hurricane Harvey damaging the criminal justice buildings, causing delays in clearing cases. The pandemic exacerbated the lag.
Luong’s opponent campaigned to decrease the case backlog in the 185th courtroom. As of February, his court surpassed more than 2,500 pending criminal cases — above the average 2,223 cases, according to Harris County District Courts records. Docket clearance rates in that court, however, ranked 101 percent for the last three months of 2021. The average is 100, records show.
Beall also labeled herself as a supporter of bail reform — all while noting that “bail reform and community safety are not mutually exclusive,” according to her website.
Anastasio’s opponent, Thomas, told the Houston Chronicle Editorial board she believes some of the felony judges are irresponsibly wielding their discretion over bond to allow too many repeat offenders to walk free.
Bail amounts in Anastasio’s courtroom appeared to steadily increase in 2019 onward, according to Justice Administration Department statistics. While having one of the lowest case loads in Harris County, records also show, her clearance rate stands at 87 percent. The judge could not be reached for comment.
In the misdemeanor courts, Bynum returned to his chambers Wednesday afternoon in the Criminal Court No. 8 after swearing in a jury for a trial. He sat down at his standing desk and vaped.
The night prior, he garnered only 41 percent of the vote to his opponent, Ramirez, who touted her ties to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office while campaigning.
“I accomplished everything I came here to do,” said Bynum, who labeled himself a Democratic socialist in his 2018 bid.
Bynum helped to settle the historic bail lawsuit in Harris County that established an end to some poor defendants being jailed on low-level charges, while those with money could post bail and walk free.
“I think a lot of the harms I saw have been remedied,” Bynum said. “There is still a lot to do and that’s why I was running again. I will resume that fight from outside the courthouse.”
Singer, the other misdemeanor judge, was absent Wednesday as he fell short of enough votes. A retired judge was sitting in his place in Criminal Court No. 14.
Reached by phone later, Singer said he saw the loss coming and took the day off. He lamented that partisan elections decide who sits on the bench.
“Nobody knows who we are — it’s impossible for the electorate to be informed,” the judge said.
The criminal judges who faced opposition and who will keep their seats are Frank Aguilar in the 228th District Court, Hilary Unger in 248th District Court and Chris Morton in the 230th District Court. Judges David Fleischer, Kelley Andrews and Andrew Wright will also keep their misdemeanor benches.