Three women are running for three different seats on the dais in the upcoming midterm elections, but they’ve decided to join forces in an effort to become the first Black female or Democrat judges in Tarrant County since the 1990s.
Crystal Gayden, Ebony Turner and MarQ Clayton are running for open bench seats on county and district courts.
Gayden is running against Beth Poulos, current associate judge for the 324th District Court. Turner faces Fort Worth attorney Randi Hartin for Tarrant County Criminal Court 6 and Clayton goes against Fort Worth prosecutor Eric Starnes for Tarrant County Criminal Court 7.
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In the spring of 2021, the three women officially came together and decided to run as a slate, or a platform for candidates who run on a single campaign but each running for a different position.
“We all met up, and I guess the rest is history,” said Clayton. “We decided it would be a better impact and more memorable if we all ran together.”
Slates allow candidates to pool resources together, and it’s a good strategy when candidates all have the same values, said Matthew Montgomery, a political science professor at Texas Christian University.
A single candidate on the slate can participate at an event or meeting and represent all members at once, Montgomery added. That tells the crowd that there is another person running for a position that shares similar beliefs and voters should consider that candidate as well, he said.
Texas is one of eight states that votes for judges in partisan elections, or an election where judges list a political affiliation on the ballot. In Tarrant County, Republicans hold every judicial position in the 42 district and county courts in Tarrant County, not including justice of the peace courts.
“In most states, we have nonpartisan judicial elections,” Montgomery said. “Using slates is a way for Republicans or Democrats to present their slate of candidates – it’s less common in partisan states like Texas because candidates run under a party.”
For Turner, Gayden and Clayton, it was important to think outside of the box for the upcoming election.
“I think we knew it was going to be an uphill battle. We wanted to do things a bit differently, and putting our heads together just made sense,” Turner said. “Typically, you see people join together late in an election, but we thought it was really important to come out of the gate together.”
All candidates have their own unique campaign for each specific seat. But, they have similar values that anchor their platforms: efficient justice, instilling respect and fairness, and restoring diversity to the courts.
The candidates emphasized that increasing Black representation in the court system is important to reflect Tarrant County’s diverse population.
“Tarrant County deserves a balance,” Clayton said. “There are no African American females in the courts, and there hasn’t been since the ‘90s, which is a far cry from the cross-section of Tarrant County, where 2 million people are very diverse.”
County vs District Courts
The trial court structure in Texas has several levels, each handling different types of cases.
District courts are the primary trial courts in Texas. Typically, district courts handle criminal cases and felonies, while county courts handle everything else such as misdemeanors, traffic violations, etc.
In larger counties like Tarrant County, the court system is divided into smaller ‘subsections’ where each court and judge hear specific kinds of cases.
The 324th District Court is a family court, meaning courts that primarily deal with matters involving parents and children.
Beth Poulos, 68, is the Republican candidate for the 324th District Court. Poulos has served as the current associate judge for the 324th District Court for 15 years. An associate judge serves a single court at the will of the judge of that court.
“I do not believe a platform, per se, is applicable to family court,” Poulos said. “The primary directive is to ensure the best interests of the children who are the subject of litigation.”
Poulos earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Arlington before receiving a law degree from Southern Methodist University. For 16 years, she primarily practiced family law and then served another 16 as the associate judge for the 324th District Court.
Poulos currently resides in Mansfield and has lived in Tarrant County for 43 years.
Divisions of property and issues of best interest for the family are not political directives, so experience and expertise in the field of family law is important for decision making, Poulos said. “I am board certified in family law, I have 32 years of experience in family law, I have been a sitting judge for 16 years. I have served our country in the U.S. arm and I have served as the associate judge for the 324th District Court. For those reasons and more, I am the candidate best fit for the position I seek.”
Crystal Gayden, 41, is the Democratic candidate for the 324th District Court. Gayden has been practicing family law for 12 years and serves as a family law solo practitioner. A solo practice is a business operated by a licensed professional, in this case a law firm.
Her priorities for the 324th District Court are three-fold: restore compassion, provide resources to families to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and bring a unique perspective to the seat, Gayden said.
“A compassionate judge allows both sides of the court to facilitate the needs of each family. We know that families are not identical, and we need to utilize all of our resources to help each family,” she said.
Gayden attended University of Houston for her undergraduate degree before receiving her law degree from the Texas Wesleyan School of Law, now known as Texas A&M University School of Law.
Gayden currently resides in Keller and has lived in Tarrant County for 19 years.
Gayden has personal experience with serving in family court as an advocate and litigant, but also as a client, she said.
“Family court deals with divorce. I’ve been divorced,” she said. “It deals with custody issues. I have children that were a part of that divorce. My oldest son has been adopted by my now husband. Individuals deal with these dynamics when coming into my court – there’s something to be said about an individual who has walked in your shoes.”
Tarrant County Criminal Court 6 is a misdemeanor court, or a court that deals with criminal offenses punishable by imprisonment for no longer than one year. Starting Nov. 1, Tarrant County Criminal Court 6 will transition to a dedicated family/domestic violence court.
Randi Hartin, 47, is the Republican candidate for Tarrant County Criminal Court 6.
She has been practicing law for 11 years and works at The Law Office of Kyle Whitaker in Fort Worth, where she focuses on criminal defense and handling occasional family law cases with criminal components.
Hartin obtained her associate degree from Tarrant County College, bachelor’s from University of North Texas and her law degree from Texas Wesleyan School of Law, now known as Texas A&M University School of Law.
Hartin currently resides in Mansfield and has lived in Tarrant County since 1991, except for two years in California and one year in Denton County.
Her platform is simple, she said: Enforce the law as it is written. She fears that people misunderstand a judge’s role in today’s political climate.
“A courtroom is no place for personal biases or agendas,” Hartin said. “With that said, I don’t believe enforcing the law should ever equate to poor treatment of citizens. If elected, all people who come through my court will be treated with respect, whether it be a victim, defendant, witness, or lawyer.”
Hartin has worked in Tarrant County’s family violence court as both a prosecutor and defense attorney and has also served the community as a teacher. She has “diverse experience that will enable me to see the big picture as a judge and make decisions with a true understanding of all parties’ perspectives.”
Ebony Turner, 46, is the Democratic candidate for Tarrant County Criminal Court 6. She has practiced law for 21 years, 19 of those years in criminal law. Turner has been a criminal defense attorney for 15 years, 11 of those years in Tarrant County.
“My platform is effective judgments and efficient justice,” Turner said. “We’re not just going to jump to the solution of locking people up. We’re going to look at their background before pronouncing a sentence. We are going to see if they have a history of mental health, disability, drug/ alcohol addictions or if they are a victim of domestic violence and use that information to make the right decision.”
Turner has plans to move cases through as efficiently as possible. She already has a plan to prioritize cases put into her court.
Turner attended University of Texas at Austin for her undergraduate degree and received her law degree from St. Mary’s School of Law.
Turner lives in Mansfield and has been a resident of Tarrant County for 16 years.
“I have the most experience between me and my opponent, but I am also a community servant,” Turner said. “I feel I have the best handle on what we need in the criminal justice system right now. A lot of people who come into the system look like me and I genuinely want to change that.”
Turner also stated she is passionate about bringing the community to the courtroom, mentoring young people and making juries more comfortable. As a mother to a son with down syndrome, she plans to bring her passion for mental health into the family court.
Tarrant County Criminal Court 7 is a misdemeanor court, or a court that deals with criminal offenses punishable by imprisonment for no longer than one year.
Eric Starnes, 51, is the Republican candidate for Tarrant County Criminal Court 7. He has served as a teacher and law enforcement officer alongside a legal career of 15 years. He began working for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office in 2017 as a prosecutor.
“My top priorities include ensuring fairness to both defendants and victims, applying the law equally as required by the Constitution, and maximizing judicial efficiency,” Starnes said.
Starnes obtained a bachelor’s degree from Sam Houston State University, a master’s from University of North Texas and his law degree from Texas Wesleyan School of Law, now known as Texas A&M University School of Law.
Starnes, who lives in Fort Worth, was born in the Houston area but has lived in Tarrant County for 29 years.
Starnes has experience working with the Euless Police Department. Between 2008 and 2016, he taught college students and law enforcement officers important legal issues surrounding the Fourth Amendment, and has experience working as a felony and misdemeanor prosecutor.
“During my time as a solo-practitioner, I also have years of experience as a leader, a teacher, a supervisor, and a law enforcement officer. All of these prior careers allowed me to learn the theoretical and practical application of the laws that I would be charged with upholding as the judge of a court that handles misdemeanor offenses.”
MarQ Clayton (pronounced like Mark), 38, is the Democratic candidate for Tarrant County Criminal Court 7. She has been practicing law since 2016 when she started as a prosecutor in Hood County, Texas. Now, she primarily practices criminal defense law in Tarrant County.
“One of my big goals is to join forces with the community to prevent people from coming into the courtroom – police agencies, the District Attorney’s office, other judges, pastors and different community organizations,” Clayton said. “I’m also going to deal with the backlog to reduce the jail population.”
Clayton said she has an extensive data analysis background that will help her get through the docket of cases efficiently.
Clayton received her undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma and her law degree from Texas Wesleyan and Texas A&M. Texas A&M bought Texas Wesleyan School of Law in August 2013.
Clayton lives in Burleson and has been a resident of Tarrant County for nearly 30 years.
“I have experience as both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney,” she said. “I can see and litigate cases from both sides and give true solutions.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to clarify Turner’s years of experience as a criminal defense attorney.
Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Reach her at email@example.com. 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.