The Dallas Examiner
Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates, presented by The Dallas Examiner, Jan. 29 to the African American Museum featuring candidates participating in the March 6 Democratic election.
The forum commenced with candidates for Family Court District 255: incumbent Kim Cooks and Sandre Moncriffe. Cooks initiated the discussion detailing her 2 year run as the current district judge.
“When I ran in 2013, I ran on the platform of mending the broken family and that is exactly what I have done,” she said. “I have done an excellent job. My record speaks for itself as far as dispositioning cases and as well as the budget of saving you as Dallas County residents money.”
Moncriffe presented her platform after discussing her extensive 17 year career as an attorney in family law.
“[My] platform is very simple: fair, effective and efficient,” she proclaimed. “That is absolutely what I believe as a justice system as well as judges ought to be. Judges ought to be fair, effective and efficient meaning your cases need to be heard in a timely manner and you have a right to be treated fairly.”
Audience members took advantage of the opportunity to question each candidate about their stance on various political and community issues.
Q: What are your general judicial philosophies?
COOKS: My general philosophy is that the doors of courtroom should be open to everyone so that everyone is treated with dignity and fair and that we are there to serve and help everyone. I absolutely love serving the community and that translates to love serving the community on the bench. I make sure that if there is counseling needs, financial needs and everything else is met. I make sure the family is whole because I believe in mending the broken family.
MONCRIFFE: My judicial philosophies are simply put based on my platform: fair, effective and efficient. You have a right to be heard and to an equal playing field no matter who’s on the other side of the case. My other judicial philosophy is that judges should recuse themselves when there are clear conflicts of interest. It serves no one for judges to preside over cases involving family members, best friends and ex-law partners. Those things serve no one. Those are some of my judicial philosophies.
Q: How do you handle gender bias as judges, especially in custody battles?
COOKS: There are no biases in the 255th court. Each parent is treated equally based on the facts and evidence. A father can end up with the custody of a child. A mother can end up with the custody of a child. It’s all depending on the facts of the cases. Everyone will be treated with fairness and dignity as they always have been in the 255th.
MONCRIFFE: As I have been out on the campaign trail that has been one of the top questions I get asked, specifically from men. Often times men feel that there is a presumptive bias against them in terms of custody. As a parent myself raising children with a husband, I believe in the rule of two parents raising children. So I firmly believe that whoever shows up to court, makes the best case and is clearly in the child’s best interest to where that child ought to be should be the determinant factor as where children should be placed, not based on the gender of the parent.
Q: Moncriffe, why are you challenging the incumbent in this race?
MONCRIFFE: There were a number of issues, which I have mentioned earlier about recusal. Judge Cooks has presided over her ex-law partner’s divorce where he represented himself. That was a serious conflict of interest where Judge Cooks should have recused herself. Judge Cooks has also presided over cases involving her personal attorney who represented her in her own child custody matters. Those are issues that should have been disclosed to the parties in the case, and they should not have had to pay their attorneys fees to ask Judge Cooks to recuse herself from the cases.
COOKS: To begin with, I never had a law partner. You can look my law office up on the Secretary of State [website], it is the office of Kim A. Cooks and I’ve never had a law partner so I don’t know where she’s pulling this up from out of the air. Second, it was disclosed that the attorney represented me, and the person said they wanted to go ahead and go forward. So, once it’s disclosed they can file a recusal, and if the recusal goes through it goes through, if not then it does not go through. One of the things that is important to know is when I talked about work ethic you have to have excellent work ethic in this court. I have pulled a dismissal law in family court and it talks about a 30-day rule for dismissal.
Cooks passed out papers to audience members.
Q: Why should millennials vote for you?
MONCRIFFE: It matters who sits on the bench in any of these courts. For example, family court is the most likely court you will come in contact with. If you don’t have a criminal case and you are not suing anyone, you could wind up in a divorce or fighting for custody of a child. So, in that sense, family court is very important. For yourself as a young millenial, the earlier you become engaged in the voting process and picking who your elected officials are the better it will be for you because it sets you up for a life-long love of learning, understanding politics and doing politics before politics does you.
COOKS: Family court is very important for you to vote on, especially local elections, because they’re going to impact your life instantly. You can come in the court today with custody of your child and walk out and not have custody before your child gets out of school. So that’s why it is important to know whos sitting on the bench and who your judges are. One of the things I started to answer was about work ethic. Work ethic is very important in family court because it is going to impact your life instantly. That rule that I am showing you is 30 days you need to put in a court order. There is this record I want to show you of how unacceptable and egregious the timeline was when Mrs. Moncriffe was working in the DA’s office of which she get orders in.
Cooks passed out more papers to audience members.
COOKS: Three months in the 255th, four months in the 256th, and the most shocking is nine months in the 301st court – so that means kids were probably not able to see their families or conceive child support.
MONCRIFFE: Rocking 150 or so caseload just depends on what is going on in your cases by the time you turn court orders in. No orders resulted in children not being able to see parents because the law is pretty clear. CPS must make sure that children have visits with parents. So that is patently untrue.
The second half of the forum focused on the Democratic candidates for Judicial District 265: incumbent Jennifer Bennett and Myra McIntosh.
Each candidate introduced themselves to the crowd under a two minute time limit with Bennett starting first.
“When I took over 265th district court, there was almost 270 people sitting in jail with some over two years,” she expounded. “There were 150 defenders who didn’t even have a setting in that court. [It] was a disaster. What we did was we led over 50 jury trials and worked hard. We turned our court from the worst court to one of the top three courts as far as having the least amount of time for trial. Currently, we are one of the only felony courts that doesn’t have a single person waiting in jail for their trial for more than year.”
McIntosh followed giving a glimpse of her political campaign.
“I’m running to restore justice to the 256th judicial district court,” she said before giving the audience papers disclosing attorney compensation rules. “In this particular court, there are rules that have been implemented where defense attorney are not being paid to visit their clients in jail. They are not being paid to make phone calls or letters to their client to subpoena them. How does that promote justice? That’s what I’m running for. I’m promoting justice for the defendant and the public deserves to know.”
The audience then presented their inquiries to the political aspirants in an effort for them to persuade their votes.
Q: What are your future plans for the judicial system?
MCINTOSH: Bail reform is number one. Bail reform is needed because bail forces people to take pleas or accept things they would not take if they can’t bail out of jail. An average person can’t miss a month or two out of their employment, their house, car and still maintain their life. So they are going to take these pleas without giving it thought because they’re thinking ‘Let me just get on probation,’ and they don’t see how this is totally going to affect their lives. [Therefore], the first thing I would start with is bail reform because [high bail] is increasing mass incarceration.
BENNETT: Bail reform is the reason why I attended last summer the conference in Austin and why I am one of the three judges elected by all the felony judges to be a voting member as far as what we are doing with bail reform in Dallas County. But the other thing we need to work on is we need to do a better job of keeping felony conviction, especially old felony convictions, from keeping our people from getting jobs. We have terrible rules right now where nondisclosures for expunctions makes it really tough for someone that has a nonviolent criminal conviction that is super old. That is also why in my court I don’t let anyone take a first felony conviction for a nonviolent offense without coming out to speak with me so we can go over consequences for felony convictions. That is why I am very careful about doing it. I’ve talked to dozens of young men and women out of taking a felony conviction and going through with the probation because a felony conviction can ruin your life.
Q: If you observe a party being underrepresented by a unprepared or ineffective lawyer, what would you do?
BENNETT: Unfortunately, I have seen that happen before. So what we have done in situations like that is we had to stop the preceding and appoint a second chair. We cannot as judges take someone off that case unless a client wants us to. That keeps judges from taking someone they probably don’t like or for whatever other reasons. So we can’t say ‘You can’t handle that case’ but what we can do is appoint someone else to sit second chair to help them and we’ve done that before.
MCINTOSH: I’m going to disagree with that. If I see someone being poorly represented, I’m going to stop the case and appoint someone new. Judges do it all the time. We’re in court and someone says ‘I don’t like this attorney. They’re not fairly representing me,’ the judge will say ‘Ok. Let me appoint someone new to you.’ They have to have good reason but it happens. So you have to take into account that she is partially right that you can appoint a second chair. The second chair needs time to figure out the case. They’re going to have to take over the case anyway so they need time. So I would appoint someone to take over the case.
Q: Bennett, what have you done for bail reform while in office?
BENNETT: For one thing, we changed the whole bail schedule. We have all kinds of offenses that the magistrate judges when they’re booked in can give personal cognizance bond meaning they don’t have to put up any money at all. Also, since I have been on the bench, we are getting people that are tagged with mental illness. We are making sure they have resources and they get personal recognizance bonds. So we’ve done a lot to address the issue. We’re also working with commissioner’s court because some of the reforms that we want to make require money. What we are talking about potentially going to are many bail hearing upon arrest that involve the district attorney’s office being there 24-hours a day, the public defender’s office and money, which judges don’t have.
MCINTOSH: There again has taken Judge Bennett two and a half years to understand that bail reform is needed. I knew bail reform was needed five years ago when I had a panel discussion with Dr. Cornell West about mass incarceration in light of the world back in 2013. I knew bail reform was needed when I went back there to the first time I talked to the person my first week as a defense attorney and they said ‘I can’t afford to get out of jail but I need to get out of jail to go home to the things I want.’ As far as bail reform, the things I would do effectively on Day One is implement lower bail. I would make bail cumulative but reasonable where people can get out of jail and go back to their lives. I’m not saying everybody needs to get out but some of these bond schedules not a one-sided absolute for bail.
Soon after, contenders for District 283 took to the stage: Vonciel Jones-Hill and Lela D. Mays.
Hill kicked off the introduction portion citing her 17 years of public service in the city.
“My mantra is public service,” the former councilwoman said. “My theme is fair, hard-working and experienced.”
Mays expressed her reasoning for running in the Democratic race emphasizing her experience as a magistrate judge.
“What I have seen happen in the criminal justice system over the last 18 years is that the same people keep coming back,” she said. “They keep coming back because you’re not addressing the underlying problem. The underlying problem is dealing with drugs and alcohol addiction, mental illness, homelessness, housing and jobs. Those are the issues that need to be addressed. I have addressed those. I have partnered with and been in the community. I am running for this position because experience pays.”
The two candidates answered the audience’s open-ended questions about their intentions for the district’s future.
Q: What is your vision for the judicial system and what changes do you advocated for?
MAYS: The reason I talk about the special drug court that I did is because I believe that is the future of the system. It is called criminal justice reform. I’ve been doing it for the last 15 years. I started out in DIVERT court. That court is a first time felony drug court. The court I do now is a high risk court. It is one that I developed and set the protocol and still run after 11 years. When you are dealing with individuals that have issues of substance abuse and mental illness, homelessness and those kinds of things those are issues that have to be addressed on the front end. Those are issues that, as a community, we need to be more advert in what we do with individuals.
HILL: My vision for the judiciary … every court being absolutely fair. Every defendant no matter what color or gender are judged on the facts and the law and nothing else. In the municipal court, my goal for 17 years as a trial judge was no matter what the person’s outcome I wanted them to walk out of that door saying, “She was fair.” That’s my vision for the entire judicial system. How will I make that happen? There are some reforms I want to see and training while incarcerated. I want to see a mentoring program for young men who are first time nonviolent offenders.
Q: Mays, what challenges are you seeing that makes you want to run?
MAYS: I am running because I have paid my dues. I started out at the jails, I am a magistrate and next stop is the elected position. One of the things I can tell in criminal justice system is too many people are taking convictions. What I think I have realized is that individuals that have one conviction they don’t care whether they get two or five. The judge at the front end of the system has to stop people from taking their time. What you do is you end up busting pleas, which means people cannot do the plea bargain that the DA and the defense lawyer have agreed to. You have to end up getting an assessment done. Assessment over an individual are talked to by the probation department where you determine what’s needed. What is the need of this individual? What is the risk of this community? And when we put those two things together, you can put a plan for that particular person when they come to court. They will need to be under supervision. With me supervising them, I have done this for the last 15 years. I know what to do.
Q: How would you make sure you judge fairly with paragraphing and enhancing in an open police setting?
HILL: If you been to the penitentiary twice or more and you have a new offense, then those prior offenses will be repeated. There is a way to deal with that. That is to make sure that the prosecutor and the defense attorney are working as hard as they can to get rid of paragraphs, if they can. I’m a defense attorney and I have been ever since I came off the municipal bench. I worked real hard for my folks.
MAYS: Paragraphs are where you have an individual that had a penitentiary trip. When they have a penitentiary trip and come back the next time, you now bump from a third degree to a second degree. Instead of you doing 2 to 10 or 5 to 99, you have bumped time up. You can sometimes even start at a felony charge of 15 years. You may start at a felony charge of 25 years. It all depends on a lot of the circumstances. When you talk about abuses, I would make sure that nothing is abused. I just need information once we’re in court. I want to take it back a step from there. I think we should start cutting down on the number of people that are even having to deal with the sentence part because I think individuals should be under supervision and stopped from taking all the pleas. I know you still have the right to go to trial and deal a lot of the other things but we should be looking at these underlying causes and addressing them.
The forum ended with the candidates running for the Criminal Court No 1 seat: Tina Yoo Clinton and Monique Ward.
Clinton said she aims to bring her substantial background from Criminal Court No 8 to the new district.
“I will make sure that the court runs because it is a court that needs to run smoothly in order to serve victims, defendants, tax payers and make sure the citizens have a court they can rely on,” she stated.
Ward drew the audience in with her personal and legal experiences as a district attorney and a Dallas native.
“I’m running for judge because I want to effectively help the community in which I grew up in,” she said.
Audience members asked the candidates their final unanswered questions before concluding the discussion shortly after introductions.
Q: What are your future plans for the district and what issues do you advocated for?
CLINTON: I have had an odd experience because I realized that bail reform needed to happen many years ago. The way I started learning about it was because as a presiding judge over the misdemeanor criminal court I had to learn the entirety of the system. Because when things are wrong you don’t know where they go wrong on and judges don’t have control over the entire system. So as I started learning, nationally and throughout the state of Texas, I knew there was a problem. I went down and testified at the State before there was ever a lawsuit from Harris County, and I started moving Dallas County in that direction. The lawsuit sped things up. Everyone will tell you that lawsuit sped things up. But those ideas are ones I had very early on.
WARD: I see the courts enhancing and more emphasis on diversionary programs. We’ve already seen that “tough on crime” does not work because generally for those people who have a hard sentence are eventually going to get out of jail or prison and then you’re going to have a revolving door into the criminal justice system. So we need to address some underlying conditions, which many of the judges have already started doing. Judge Lela Mays has a stat court and when you’re talking about mental illness, you’re talking about those people that are addicted to drugs and alcohol. You need to address and understand those particular issues. More specifically we need to have more emphasize on diversionary programs for nonviolent offenders. Those offenders should have second chances instead of being given felony convictions. There should be job, housing and education opportunities for them.
Q: What does bail reform mean to you and what actions would you take?
WARD: Bail is to ensure that a defendant appears in court. It should not be punitive. You should take into account the circumstance in which the person was arrested. You should take into account the safety of the community. All those different factors should be taken into consideration when you are talking about bail. It shouldn’t be just you’re in jail because you can’t afford or someone is scared of you. You should be given a bail that is reasonable and fair.
CLINTON: Bail reform needs to be envisaged so that all the people can be treated fairly in the system. There needs to be a risk assessment done when and individual person is sent to jail. They also need indigency hearings so that we know whether they’re poor or not. We also need mental health hearings to make sure that assessment is done properly. All three of those assessments need to go before the arraignment so the person who’s dealing that has the magistrates who have the authority to actually have that bond set properly have information in front of them and that they’re not filing blind. We all agree. Poor people should not be just in jail because they’re poor but do you want a mass murderer out on bond? None of us do. We want our community safe, too. We have to balance those needs.
Q: What are your views on racial and gender bias as it pertains to Black people having longer sentences?
WARD: Of course, there has been a disparity so that’s why you have to have judges put in place that have the experience. As a former prosecutor and defense attorney, I know what justice is and what it looks like. You should have someone who has the experience in the type of felony cases in which they want to preside over. When you’re talking about disparity, you need to address that disparity. Of course someone should be given a fair and reasonable chance in front of a judge. So what do you do? You make sure that you listen to the facts of the case. You make sure you understand everything that is before you and make decisions based on your ability to be fair and reasonable.
CLINTON: I tried some of the first cases in the nation out of Dallas, Texas, because we’re that kind of county. There’s not an issue of whether I can handle a felony or not. But here’s a reality. Everyday I find people not guilty. Everyday I listen to police officers who may have crossed the line and I am very comfortable saying they crossed the line. If they stay within the boundaries and the jury says that they are guilty or ‘I believe the facts, too,’ I’m willing to do that as well. But I am very comfortable finding someone not guilty or granting motions to suppress because law has not been followed. I am not scared of making those calls. It’s not something I’m telling I just might do. I do it everyday in my court.
The last Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates was held Feb. 5 and highlighted candidates running for Criminal District Judge Court No 6, Criminal District Judge Court No 7, Family District Judge District 302, Family District Judge District 304, Judge Court at Law No 2. The next forum will be held Feb. 12 for Judge Court at Law No 4, Judge Criminal Court No 3, Judge Criminal Court No 10, Judge Criminal Court of Appeals No 1 and Judge Criminal Court of Appeals No 2.