Contenders for the 294th District Court Define Their Positions
Three contenders for the 294th District Court defined their positions and qualifications to about 200 citizens in attendance Monday night, at the jointly sponsored Edom Tea Party and Van Zandt Republican Club Candidates Forum held in the Canton Civic Center. Current 294th District Court Judge Teresa Drum announced before the holidays this past year, that she would not be seeking reelection. As a result, private attorney Tina Brumbelow filed for the position, followed by Van Zandt County (VZC) District Attorney Chris Martin, and Van Zandt County Court at Law Judge Randy McDonald.
Each candidate had experience in civil and criminal law, including felony level cases. Questions prepared and submitted by citizens prior to the forum, were read aloud in turn, by panelists Ken Hilton with Mercy Ships, Bob Reese of Re/Max Landmark Realty, and Brad Blakemore, Publisher of the Van Zandt Newspapers. First, candidates made two-minute opening statements.
McDonald is from Ben Wheeler and just retired a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserves last year, and has served as Judge in the County Court at Law seven years. In past, he has been a prosecutor and sent violent criminals to prison for long sentences, and has represented doctors in hospitals, individuals in personal injury cases, estate cases, and family law. Because of his experience as a two-term judge, he feels uniquely qualified to move into the 294th District Court, for which he has helped relieve the docket in the VZ County Court at Law.
Martin took office as elected VZC District Attorney in 2011, and said that he has been dedicated to reducing backlogs, bringing vision, technology, and fair, impartially consistent application of the law, which he said he wants to bring to the 294th Court as well. He has prepared many cases that were tried in the 294th District Court, and said that he’s prepared to continue that work as Judge.
Brumbelow is from Van and explained that the 294th Court services 54,000 citizens in Van Zandt County, is a court that hears 40 percent criminal law related cases, 30 percent general civil litigation, and 30 percent family law cases. She feels qualified for the position because of a wide range of law practice in criminal defense, general civil litigation, extensive expertise in family law; and is prepared to bring the energy necessary for the demanding docket. Brumbelow expressed a desire to continue the progress and programs put in place by Judge Drum in relation to court appointed attorneys’ fees and collection of child support.
Question: If a mediator was appointed in a case, how would you monitor the performance of the mediator for efficiency and a fair outcome for the parties?
Martin answered first, “Mediation is important in those civil cases, and I make a point to say civil cases, not criminal cases…it’s important where the parties may be able to make an agreement. How do you monitor the mediator? You need to make sure first that you appoint a qualified, competent mediator…at helping parties reach resolutions. You stay in contact with the mediator. You judge them based on the results you get in their cases… You have to have communication with your mediator; make sure you’re appointing the proper mediator; and that they have the subject matter expertise to get the job done.”
Brumbelow explained, “Mediation is actually governed by Chapter 153 of the Texas Civil Procedure…and Chapter 154 of the Texas Family Code, and Chapter 6 in the Family Code with regards to property distribution. Mediation is a confidential setting. It’s almost impossible to determine a fair outcome, based upon a court’s perception. A fair outcome is based upon perception of the litigant, whether the litigants believe they have a fair outcome or not. We are not at privity… to know what the facts were or the circumstances that were discussed… The judge is not always the person to appoint the mediator. More times than not, the mediator is agreed to by the parties, and it’s who they choose…that they believe… can make the best decision or encourage them to come to the best negotiation that’s best for their family.”
McDonald replied, “I require mediation in all cases that go to trial in my court; but what some people don’t realize is that some of the discretion has been taken away from judges in the previous legislative session, where there’s now actually, a court appointed list similar to indigent defense council, where the mediator writes into the court and wants to be placed onto your list, and the parties do not agree, you have to appoint that mediator, so you may not get the best results. And actually, there are some judges trying to change that.”
Brumbelow responded, “I think it’s important to recognize that in regard to the Texas Family Code, that even though you have mediation, a judge is bound by the decisions of the party when you have a mediated settlement agreement, and they are not able to determine whether or not a property division is fair and equitable, or whether or not an agreement that’s reached by two parties, was apparent, is in the best interest of the child. They’re required to enter a judgement based upon the settlement agreement only.”
Martin said, “I would further add that not all cases that go to trial need mediation. I think you need a judge that’s got the ability to exercise discernment and understand which parties are close, which parties need mediation; and you’ve got to have the ability and the real life, and world experience to know when a case needs to be resolved, when a marriage needs to end, when it’s no longer healthy for people to have a lengthened legal process just in the namesake of going to mediation. A court should provide the legal resolution of cases…”
McDonald added that there has been a lot of cases involved in debt collection, especially with the elderly with outstanding medical debt; and he encourages mediation in those cases, and has seen companies forgive debts.
Brumbelow opposed requiring mediation in all cases, due to the cost, and the fact that Van Zandt is a poor County. Martin agreed.
The next question was asked of McDonald was in relation to any backlog in his court and, How many of your rulings have been appealed and overturned on appeal?
McDonald said that there was no backlog of cases in his court. Regarding appeals, McDonald said that he doesn’t keep track of that, but that he believes of rulings he’s made that have been overturned, it is in line with the State average, which is about three percent.
Martin argued that he believes there is a backlog of cases in the County Court at Law. “The reason that there’s not a documented backlog,” he accused is, “…because the Court Coordinator, under the leadership of the Judge of that Court, Judge McDonald, is about 100 cases behind, going back to about August of last year. There’s no stated backlog because there’s no filing for arraignments and pre-trial hearings, so if those cases were judiciously handles, there would be a backlog. There’s never going to be a court that doesn’t have a backlog, if the court is staying on top of its work.
McDonald took up for his Coordinator. “I would disagree with that; and I think it’s kind of low to start picking on Court Coordinators and that type of thing…I think Mary Barker does a fabulous job, and most people that have had any type of involvement with the court system praises her, and I regularly praise her as the best Court Manager in the State of Texas. Truly. And, I’m quite appalled that you’d say that.”
Martin retorted, “Well, I’m sorry, but facts are facts. I’ve got the spread sheet. If you want it, I’ll provide it. I’m not trying to be low. People are here to be informed. I’m giving them the facts.
McDonald asked why Martin waited until that moment, at the Forum to bring up the matter.
Brumbelow spoke up and said, “I can’t speak with regard to the criminal setting, however, I do know that I have a case that was on the docket for at least four years that we can’t get a trial set for in the civil section.”
Martin argued that the matter had been brought up previously.
McDonald requested Martin show the proof.
Moderator, Bob Reese reminded the candidates of the rules of the debate, that anything accused in responses needed to be documented after such proof is requested. Moderators moved on to the next question, asked of Brumbelow.
What makes you more qualified than your opponents, who have been serving the courts of VZC as a Judge and DA, respectively?
Brumbelow responded by citing her broad-based experience with 17 years of law practice in the State of Texas, 13 of those being in her own law firm. She’s handled multi-million dollar cases, very complex and controversial criminal cases across the State, family law, and general civil litigation cases. In particular, she enjoyed criminal defense, however, the greater need in the County was family law, which is where most of her experience lies.
The next question asked how each candidate would reduce the backlog of court cases and whether any criminal felony cases would be sent to the County Court at Law.
McDonald said that he hears criminal cases now, and said that he would devote two weeks out of the month to hearing criminal cases. He also plans to work with the Sheriff’s Department to determine which cases take priority, due to costs of inmate housing for violent vs. non-violent and repeat vs. first-time offenders.
Martin wants to prioritize violent crimes, and move them more quickly through the court, and warned against trying more than two cases a month, believing there wouldn’t be enough time to manage other cases that need to move through the docket. Martin believes there is cooperation with the departments now, and claimed that was not a new idea.
Brumbelow believes the first order of business is to promote better interdepartmental relations by encouraging the District Court work with the Sheriff’s Department and the DA’s office, without the butting of heads and finger-pointing. If everyone is doing their job and working together, cases can move more smoothly through the court system.
Martin accused Brumbelow of naivety and being “new to the system.”
The question of the evening that indicated the greatest impact on the County, was addressed to Chris Martin:
It has been said that there are cases that will come before this District Judge position, that you as District Attorney prosecuted, as therefore, may need to recuse yourself from hearing. Is that true? And if so, how many cases are there, and what will be the cost to taxpayers to have those cases tried?
Martin downplayed the issue and claimed that was true of every person on the stage, and that there could be cases from which each candidate might need be recused. “The cases that I would be disqualified from, would be the cases that I have personal participation and involvement in. Not every case that comes through the DA’s office has my hands on it. Not every one has my signature. I would not be recused, I would not be disqualified from those; so my felony prosecutors that are handling their cases, I could preside over those cases. All of the misdemeanor cases, I haven’t touched a misdemeanor case in seven years.”
McDonald disagreed, stating that it is estimated to cost the County hundreds of thousands of dollars in District Court. “A visiting judge in court, is $600 a day, and if you bring in a court reporter…that’s another $350… I didn’t have to recuse myself from any conflict of law cases.” He pointed out that Martin has no experience in civil or family areas, and may not be able to hear a single case in District Court, because for eight years in the DA’s office, he’s handled criminal cases, no misdemeanors.
Martin argued that the State pays visiting judges, and the County pays the per diem mileage and meals.
[However, the State has a limit on what it will pay for visiting judges, which when exhausted, could create backlog in courts where judges must recuse themselves.]
Brumbelow pointed out that ultimately, taxpayers will foot the bill. “My disqualification from cases would be minimal to none… I can pick and choose which cases I do and do not do.”
Martin came back, “The reason it’s minimal is because she doesn’t handle that many cases in Van Zandt County. Any cases that I’m going to be recused on, I can go down and have the County [Court-at-Law] Judge come up. When we get a competent County Court at Law Judge, then your District and County Court at Law can work together in tandem…It will cost the County nothing.”
However, this begs the questions: If the District Court funnels cases down to the County Court at Law to help relieve its docket, how will the lower court be able to do its job effectively, if it must consistently step up to handle felony District Court cases from which Mr. Martin should recuse himself? And, will Mr. Martin then slip into the role of County Court at Law visiting Judge to hear misdemeanors and other cases (not felonies), so that that the backlog doesn’t become too burdensome for the lower court? It sounds as though Martin is expecting a true spirit of cooperation between himself and whomever should be elected the next Judge in the County Court at Law. Let’s all hope that a spirit of cooperation becomes a reality, regardless of whom voters elect. Elected professionals are called upon to do their jobs, despite the fact they may disagree with others in various offices and departments.
The Super Tuesday Primary Election is March 6, 2018. Early voting begins February 20 and goes through March 2.