Elected officials are usually tasked with crafting policy that impacts the roads you drive on and the taxes you pay. Judges are elected officials whose power often extends into the personal lives of their constituents: Family ties, property, and personal freedom could be at stake in district courts.
District judges across Texas spend an average of eight years on the bench. This year, the retirements and departures of five justices across Tarrant County set the stage for crowded Republican primaries in the family and criminal courts.
What do district judges do?
District courts are the state trial court of general jurisdiction. They are divided into four categories: civil, criminal, family, and juvenile. Each category is responsible for its own specific set of cases
- Civil: Handles cases when the amount of money or damages involved is $200 or more and any matters in which jurisdiction is not placed in another trial court
- Criminal: Tries cases ranging from criminal misdemeanors to death penalty cases
- Family: Handles divorce cases and custody disputes, adoptions
- Juvenile: Hears criminal cases against minors and attempts to support and treat juveniles in the criminal justice system
“Lawyers don’t generally run for judges unless there is an opening,” Matthew Montgomery, a political science professor at TCU, said. “And, once you win that seat, it’s almost certain that you’re going to keep it because it’s rare someone’s going to contest them.”
Campaigning judges said they are often hesitant to run against sitting judges. Montgomery explains that potential candidates are disincentivized from running against incumbents out of fear that someday they might have to present a case in front of the judge they’re trying to unseat.
“When there’s a strong incumbent that has no real terrible controversy, then it scares off any qualified challengers,” Montgomery said.
District courts are often victims of partisan “sweeps,” or mass election of judges based solely on party, according to a 2020 report from the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection. Since 1989, Tarrant County has been home to almost exclusively Republican judges since a group of Democratic judges switched parties on the same day, at the end of Reagan’s presidency. Since then, Republican incumbents have typically maintained their spot on the bench.
The 323rd District Court
The 323rd District Court, a juvenile court, is one of three races where an incumbent judge faces a primary challenger. The seat is held by Judge Alex Kim, a Republican judge who has drawn national headlines for decisions and statements made from the bench.
“There’s just a different perspective, in my philosophy on juvenile delinquency than the previous judges,” Kim said. “I think, kids today, they’re lacking accountability… And we keep on giving extra chances, and what we end up doing as a society is we tend to enable these children.”
His opponent, Pia Lederman, practices juvenile and family law in Tarrant County. She said Kim’s approach to the bench lacks respect for lawyers and defendants, and that perception spurred her desire to challenge his seat on the bench, she said.
“Running against an incumbent isn’t the popular opinion, but as an attorney and as a citizen and as a taxpayer, I just couldn’t stand by and do nothing,” Lederman said.
Incumbent judges receive ratings from lawyers practicing in Tarrant County through an annual judicial evaluation. Kim received an overall rating of “poor” by nearly 68% of Tarrant County attorneys who chose to rate Kim.
Kim questioned the legitimacy of the survey, explaining there’s no requirement that the attorneys who vote in the survey practice in the courts they are asked to rate.
Montgomery said voters typically can’t closely monitor the judiciary; tools like the judicial survey are one of the few ways to evaluate judges.
“Those ratings are great for something like that, we use them a lot,” Montgomery said.
Juvenile courts are different from typical criminal courts. Along with preserving public safety, they “provide treatment, training, and rehabilitation that emphasizes the accountability and responsibility of both the parent and the child for the child’s conduct.”
Kim would like to use his influence as a judge to establish a post-adjudication facility, a secure facility meant to help children struggling with mental health and victims of sex trafficking transition back to society, he said.
Lederman’s approach to the bench will include reevaluating the number of children detained and taking a more conservative approach to placing juveniles in jail, she said.
Juvenile courts also differ from other courts in its use of experts, including Child Protective Services caseworkers, psychologists and physicians, to understand children and their families better. Particularly in cases involving CPS, the court is also responsible for assessing parents and CPS.
Cases involving CPS were moved out of juvenile court in 2020 after district judges voted to instead rotate CPS cases through the six juvenile courts in Tarrant County. Around the same time, WFAA reported on a conflict between Judge Kim and Court Appointed Special Advocates of Tarrant County, who volunteer to represent children who are separated from their parents.
The Fort Worth Report reached out to Court Appointed Special Advocates of Tarrant County, who said they didn’t want to comment on political races. Kim said handled CPS cases appropriately and efficiently.
“CPS wasn’t a problem, CPS was beautiful and it functioned the way it was supposed to,” Kim said.
Frank Adler is a Democrat running unopposed in the Democratic primary. He could not be reached for comment.
The rest of the races present an open opportunity for a new judge to take the bench. Candidates are typically either attorneys or associate judges. Associate judges are appointed by District Judges and can take on cases referred to them by the presiding judge.
The Fort Worth Report reached out to all the candidates in contested races.
The 141st court is a Civil District Court handling the amount of money or damages involved is $200 or more. Republican John Chupp is an incumbent, and 55% of Tarrant County attorneys rated him “excellent”. Chupp did not respond to a request for comment.
Stefanie Klein, has been practicing law for over 30 years. She is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. Klein is running because she believes she can make the court more respectful and fair, she said.
The 231st court is a Family District Court handling divorce cases and custody disputes. Republican Jesse Nevarez is the incumbent, and 54.5% of Tarrant County attorneys rated him “excellent”. William Nolen is challenging Nevarez in the primaries. Nolen did not respond to a request for comment.
The 324th is also a Family District Court. Judge Jerome Hennigan, Republican, announced his retirement after 16 years, making the seat open. Republican Beth Poulos is an associate judge on the court, and 45.1% of Tarrant County attorneys rated her “excellent”.
Poulos said she intended to retire with Hennigan, but decided the court could use her experience. She was appointed to be an associate judge in 2006. She said she will approach the bench with compassion, kindness and fairness with an emphasis on following the law as it is written.
Attorney Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Rivera is Poulos’ opponent in the Republican primary. She said she always intended to serve her community by becoming a judge. She said she wants to be a judge who is in touch with the day-to-day activities of the court.
Attorney Crystal Gayden is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. She said she wants to run to restore compassion to the bench. Applying fairness is what makes a judge effective, she said.
The 325th is another Family District Court held by Judge Judith Wells; she plans to leave the bench in 2022. Republican Lori DeAngelis Griffith is an associate judge appointed by Wells in 2018. She is a popular judge, with 78.4% of Tarrant County attorneys rating her “excellent”. She said her experience, compassion and even temperament will be an asset to her as a judge.
Cynthia Terry, R is an associate judge in 323rd, Alex Kim’s court, appointed in 2018. Nearly 43% of Tarrant County attorneys rated her overall performance poor. She said she has helped increase the efficiency of the 323rd.
The 371st is a criminal district court. It tries everything from misdemeanors to death penalty cases. Judge Mollee Westfall recently left the 371st to run for Tarrant County District Attorney.
Republican Ryan Hill has been a prosecutor for over 13 years. He said he joined the race because he is concerned with public safety and feels he could bring experience to the open bench seat. He said he will approach the bench with diverse experience, respect from judges and lawyers and the work ethic required to move cases through the court quickly.
William Knight, Republican, is the assistant chief prosecutor in the district attorney’s intimate partner violence unit. He will approach the criminal court with respect for the law and humility, and emphasized the importance of following the law as it is written, he said.
Judge Mike Thomas, plans to leave this criminal court in 2022. Glynis Adams McGinty, Republican, is a trial lawyer practicing in Tarrant County. She said she will be fair, stern, compassionate and competent if she is elected to the bench.
Associate Judge Anthony ‘Andy’ Porter is also running in Criminal District 4, but he could not be reached for comment. In the bar poll, 34.4% of attorneys rated Porter poor, while 34.4% also rated him satisfactorily.
Judge Scott Wisch does not plan to run again in the 372nd district court. Pamela Boggess, Republican, previously worked as an Assistant Criminal District Attorney where she specialized in prosecuting child sexual abuse and gangs. She went on to become a magistrate judge and said her diverse experience makes her an ideal candidate for judge.
Julie Lugo is a Tarrant County assistant criminal district attorney currently assigned to the Special Victims Unit. Lugo did not respond to requests for comment before deadline. On her website, she said she is committed to being a “fair and impartial judge dedicated to justice and protecting our community.”
Each candidate emphasized the importance of voters making educated choices about who they elect to the bench.
Montgomery said often it is the legal community that chooses what judges get elected since voters are often don’t have the resources to critically evaluate the performance of judges.
“A lot of people don’t feel (it’s) responsible to vote for someone if they have no idea who they are,” Montgomery said.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.