Monday Night Politics – Meet the Candidates features candidates for district court judge positions

Monday Night Politics   Meet the Candidates
Monday Night Politics Meet the Candidates

The Dallas Examiner

The Dallas Examiner presented its third Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates forum Jan. 22 highlighting several candidates for district court judge positions.

The event commenced with the nominees for district judge for Judicial District 68: incumbent Martin Hoffman, Amanda Ghagar and Kim Brown. Brown was not present.

Hoffman kicked off the discussion with a formal introduction of his plans to ensure a strong Democratic presence in the justice system.

“The Republican Party is going to do anything that they possibly can to disenfranchise us and divide us from voter identification to all these lawsuits we are seeing,” he said. “I have the utmost respect for [my opponents]. They’re both Democrats, and if I win the primary, I hope they support me and [vice versa], and I think we should all make that same play because the only way we [Democrats] got elected in 2006 was by being unified, organized and taking it to the Republicans.”

Ghagar followed by revealing her plans for refinements to the judicial system.

“As a judicial candidate, I think that we can work harder to build bridges into the legal profession and the judiciary for underrepresented groups,” she stated. “If elected, I am committed to developing a broad range of programs that will give opportunities to young kids and first-year law students and young lawyers.”

After introducing themselves, the candidates answered questions provided by audience members about their campaign priorities and political opinions.

QUESTION: What is your vision for the future of the judicial system, and what changes do you advocate for and why?

HOFFMAN: One of the things that are important for judges – civil, family or criminal – is sometimes you need to think outside the box and think about how to help people. Some of the things I’ve done over the last 11 years is I have created a program for foreclosure mediation where I have given every homeowner a voice in the foreclosure process from start to finish. They have a opportunity to have a hearing, get free credit counseling, learn different options and go to mediation – and we have saved dozens of homes that way. Thinking outside the box and coming up with solutions is good for the citizens and what the future is about.

GHAGAR: I think we do a better job cultivating a love for the law and a sense of belonging for underrepresented communities. First, when I was a worldwide pro bono lead for Hewlett-Packard, I oversaw 50 attorneys that delivered 100 hours of pro bono service and met with elementary kids. Given my background, I wasn’t surprised to see most of these kids had met lawyers through the criminal justice system. If I am elected, I will rally attorneys from both sides of the bar and my colleagues on the bench to go into elementary schools and get to know these kids and let them know this is a path forward, and if they are interested, there is a seat at the table. Secondly, for underrepresented groups, first-year law students I would like to clerk with them, and we’ll also work on the soft skills of walking into a room where a bunch of people are in suits and let them know they belong there and develop a sense of confidence so that they are able to leverage natural leadership skills.

Q: Last month on Christmas Day, Dallas Morning News posted an article stating “Four White Dallas civil court judges facing challenges from Black and Hispanic women in the Democratic primary encourage White women to join the races, a controversial move that can divide the female vote and boost their chance of winning.” Can you please give further context and thoughts to those who are questioning that tactic?

HOFFMAN: I didn’t agree with everything in that article. I don’t think it was completely accurate. I have utmost respect for both of my opponents in this race. There was an allegation that was made that the male candidates somehow felt like the female candidates were not qualified. What I have said to my opponent in the Dallas Morning News was I felt that this was a civil bench. I am a civil judge. I’ve spent the last 25 years of my career working on civil cases. My opponent, who is not here, is a family lawyer. I’m not criticizing her. I think she would be a good family law judge. She just isn’t specialized in civil, and that’s what I felt was problematic about her running.

GHAGAR: It hurt my feelings when I read the article. I’ve spent my free time advocating for a seat at the table for everyone and the right to be a full equal participant, so it hurts my feelings to have that come out. In the editorial, when they called me “bright and enthusiastic” – which is what you call a 4-year-old child – and literally disregarding my years of experience in the courtroom that also hurts me on a fundamental level. I only ask to be judged on my qualifications and my experience.

Q: What [are] your thoughts on courts dealing racial and gender bias?

HOFFMAN: One of the things I’ve done my entire career is trying to act out and promote diversity with everything I’ve done. I was president of the Texas Young Democrats. When I was president of TYD, there was still a split between conservatives and the progressive wing of the party. I developed the minority caucus of TYD. I also served as president of the Dallas Homeowners League, which is a citywide organization where we formed our first Southern Sector neighborhood fair. Recently, I was awarded the Cleo Steele committed mentor award for working with minority interns. It’s something that is fundamental to me from where I started out as an attorney to where I am now.

GHAGAR: I’m part of the Texas Minority Counsel program today. I’m passionate about it. Every opportunity I have had to hire council or asked about job opportunities with all things being equal I prefer to give the opportunity to a woman or a minority because there aren’t enough of us in the profession. The way that you change that is you elect people in power and then those people wield the little power they have to give opportunities to people so everyone has a seat at the table and the opportunity as a full equal participant.

Next, District 160 judicial contenders participated in the political forum: incumbent Jim Jordan, Aiesha Redmond, Lynda Lee Weaver and Bonnie Wulff. Weaver and Wulff were invited but did not attend.

Jordan initiated the discussion discussing his extensive qualifications.

“I am board certified in civil trial law, and the only candidate in this race board certified since 1984,” he stated.

Shortly after, Redmond introduced herself to the crowd and gave her reasoning for pursuing the district.

“I’m running to bring back true equality and justice to this court,” she said. “I want to administer justice fairly, efficiently and effectively. Justice should not be delayed or denied because a judge is indecisive or bias toward a group of individuals.

The district candidates replied to several questions proposed by the audience in the second quarter of the forum.

Q: What is your vision for the future of the judicial system, and what changes do you advocate for and why?

JORDAN: Something I want to talk to you about is implicit bias. It is important that judges go through training on implicit bias so that they know how to deal with that in the courtroom, and I have gone through that training. I would advocate for for attorneys going through this as well. I would also advocate that we work with our jurors to help them understand that everybody has implicit bias, and we need to bring that out and talk about it. Jurors need to understand that they need to be making the decisions based on the facts just like the judges are trying to do.

REDMOND: In addition to this training, I believe that every elected official should not only do their work – a 9-to-5 job on which they were elected to do – but they must get involved in these communities. Different individuals and different types of litigants present cases each and every day in the courtroom. And if you never stepped inside of these communities south of the Trinity River, how can you be fair and impartial to all litigants? So, I would stress community involvement as far as bringing back fairness and equality to our court system.

Q: Do you think judges have an obligation to educating and bringing awareness about the judicial system to the public, and how would you go about that?

JORDAN: I do think it is very important. One of the things I’ve done is stepped into all parts of our community and all parts of Dallas County in talking to our community about our court system. I have been an adjunct professor at Paul Quinn College for four semesters on their legal studies program. I have mentored law students in my chambers. I have taken in law students in law schools across the state.

REDMOND: There are a lot of technical issues that go on in our courtroom, so I do believe a judge should definitely bring education and awareness to the community. When I become elected, I plan on implementing a financial literacy program that will deal with issues focusing on mortgages, predatory lending, adjustable interest rates, fixed income rates, and things you were not taught in school. In 2008, the housing level occurred and a lot of individuals within the minority community were affected, and I believe that bringing awareness and education to the community on certain issues will help to prevent that.

Q: Can you please give further context and thoughts to those who are questioning that tactics discussed in the Dallas Morning News article?

JORDAN: I was actually misquoted in that report. I feel that it is a little awkward for me to talk about the two other candidates, but I will say this. The Democratic primary is an open primary, and anyone who chooses to run can run in that open primary. These two individuals chose to run. I am not trying to dilute anyone’s vote, and I am not trying to dilute the women’s vote. I think the women are smart, the men are smart, and Democrats are smart. They will be able to look at this race and make decisions on who the best candidate is and will make the best judge. I truly believe that the women will carry our party and our nation to the promised land.

REDMOND: This is a democracy, and I get excited when I see individuals who actually want to take part in it, serve in the community, and make a difference. But, when you have individuals who are only running for office because they were asked to put their name on the ballot to split the female vote, I do not agree with that. We should all be open and honest here, and it is telling that these two individuals are not here. They were asked to be apart of this race with no aspirations of being judges or making a difference in this community, and it is unfair and sad that certain individuals would try and manipulate the voters.

Thereafter, District 193 judicial candidates took the stage: incumbent Carl Ginsberg and Bridgett Whitmore. The other candidates, Lindsay Harrison and Joan Ballard, were not present.

Ginsberg expressed his political values to the audience.

“As a Democrat, it is important to tell people why you are a Democrat,” he said. “It is because I believe in freedom, fairness, equality in opportunity and no person should be impoverished by poverty, ignorance and conformity.”

Whitmore followed right after with an introduction detailing her qualifications and her passions.

“I am a public servant,” she said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to serve this community, and I think I am the perfect person for the 193rd.”

Audience members presented several questions to the candidates for their March 6 voting decisions.

Q: What are your future plans for the district?

GINSBERG: The biggest problem we have in civil district courts is when people are indigent, they don’t have money. And unlike in criminal courts, if you’re in criminal cases and you don’t have money, there is an opportunity for you to be represented by a public defender or council. In civil court, we have many people that do not have means, and they are in a difficult position. As judges, our hands are tied sometimes. We need to advocate that the legislative appropriates more money for legal aid. We need to work to get more Democrats in the legislature, so that they realize the importance of this and appropriate the funding for civil law clinics.

WHITMORE: I actually agree with Judge Ginsberg. I think access to justice is the biggest problem, especially in the civil courts. I think we need to work on clinical education. I’m a big advocate for clinical education. If we can get a civil clinic in some of the local law schools, it will allow more access along with legal aid as well as encouraging the bar to get involved and commit some of their time.

Q: Can you provide further context and thoughts on the Dallas Morning News allegations?

GINSBERG: This is very controversial, there’s no way of sugar coating this. There is a reason I was targeted. I had a case and the lawyers lost it, and they were furious. I dismissed the case, and those lawyers specifically went out looking to recruit someone to run against me to punish me. That is nothing shy of an assault on the independence and integrity of the judiciary. It is trying to bully and intimidate judges. The truth is these down ballot races can often be a crap shoot.

WHITMORE: After I read the article, it was very clear that there was some recruitment of attorneys to run in the race to dilute the vote so that my chances would decrease. That is the absolute truth. Why would anyone think I would need to be ‘put up’ to running for judge? I am qualified. I have my own mind, and it is offensive for anyone to think that I don’t have the agency of my own to make such an important decision.

Q: Why District 193rd?

WHITMORE: The 193rd needs balance. There’s an issue with fairness in this court. Judge Ginsberg had some of the lowest bar fold ratings when it comes to impartiality. What I want to bring to the court is the balance and fairness this court needs. I worked on both sides of the aisle. I believe I am the perfect person to run for this.

GINSBERG: I have one of the more efficient courts there is, according to the objective data. Many of you are lawyers here. I think you realize I have a good reputation for temperament in the courtroom. My ratings aren’t bad. I’m board certified. I have massive amounts of trial experience, and you don’t want to replace one of the most efficient judges with a good reputation with somebody who tried no civil jury trials.

Next, invited candidates for District Court 203 were incumbent Teresa Hawthorne and Raquel “Rocky” Jones. Hawthorne was not in attendance. Jones introduced herself to the crowd.

“I will tell you specifically I want to become a judge for the 203rd is because I want to bring respect of the law, accountability and dependability back to that court,” she said. “That’s what has been lacking for the past eight years, and I believe I can bring that back.”

Audience members took advantage of the opportunity to ask the lone judge questions about her thoughts on several political issues.

Q: Violent crime is perceived to be at a crisis level by many experts today. What, if any, do you believe is an appropriate role for the judiciary in addressing this crisis?

JONES: First of all, we need to get to the root of the problem. In our society, a lot of things are based on mental health. In the 203rd, that is a court that has a specialty court that involves mental health and mental illness. First, we need to make an assessment of those that came before us. We need to find out if there is something more than just on the surface. We need to find out what the circumstances are and find out what we can do to help the root of the problem.

Q: A lawsuit was filed against Dallas County criminal judges, and I would like to know what your expectation for the judges is to correct the bail system?

JONES: The bail system does need reform because a lot of times there are citizens out there being charged humongous bail amounts unnecessarily. Let me be clear. Bail is used for a couple of reasons. It’s not just a punishment, but it is also there to protect the community. So, we do have some crimes where high bail is needed because we don’t want them back in society. To answer your question, it does need to be reformed, and we do need to have a processing place whether by board or committee that will be looking into that. We need to make sure that those that need high bail keep it, and those that need to get out back to their jobs and families are allowed to do that.

Q: I’ve heard the Democratic chair didn’t sign a petition in a timely manner, leading to people dropping out of the ballot. Is that true?

JONES: It is currently in litigation, and we would hope that the party will be able to address this and protect all of us – not just seeking candidates but also the incumbents. The legal team that I know and worked with personal have found enough law that will protect us, ut we have to make sure this won’t happen again.

The event concluded with contestants for District 204 judge positions: incumbent Tammy Kemp and Steve Duplantis.

Kemp articulated her objectives and obligations for the district.

“I’ve made three commitments since I’ve ran, and I’ve held those commitments for the last three years,” she said. “I’ve been accountable to the people. I’ve been fair to the accused. And I have been compassionate toward victims. I would like to continue the work I have begun in the 204.”

Afterwrd, Duplantis shared with the audience his reasons for running for judge seat.

“When you look at different things about the criminal justice system, one thing you got to know is that it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color,” he explained. “That’s just the truth. There’s no way of denying that to you. As a judge, there’s limited things you can do. We’re not able to shut things down completely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work or know what’s going on and try to keep from having an impact. As a public defender, I’m here to tell you I can do that in a different way than former district attorneys can do.”

Audience members inquired about the candidates’ stance on the district’s court procedures and other issues before closing out the forum.

Q: What changes do you envision for the district?

KEMP: Ironically, the changes I envisioned for the 204th and the criminal judiciary system as a whole are changes that are already undergoing. When we took the office in 2015, we began a series of committees. One of them was the bail reform as well as indigent defense system. A group of us judges have been working to reform the bail system way before we ever got accused of a lawsuit. One of the things we began was the pretrial divergent program where poor people can be released for as little as $50. We expedite the arraignment time. We’ve identified the mentally ill to expedite their release from custody because a mentally ill person doesn’t necessarily need to be in custody. They need to be somewhere getting treatment.

DUPLANTIS: As Judge Kemp mentioned, bail reform is number one. This is what happens when you get arrested and accused of a crime. You get thrown in the jail, and if you can’t bond out, you start losing things. You lose your car, apartment, job and all your material possession. But, you know what they do when you don’t pay rent? They put [your belongings] in the front and let people take it. That causes people who are incarcerated to make decisions that are not in their best interest. It causes them to make decisions that disenfranchise them and makes them a citizen that does not matter. We have to stop that. That cannot continue.”

Q: What do you feel can be appropriately done about the violent crime crisis?

KEMP: It goes back to the three commitments I made: accountable to the public, compassion toward victims and fair to the accused. I give a lot of chances in my court to a lot of people as long as they haven’t seriously hurt anyone. Violent crime is an instance that calls for the perpetrator to be separated from our society. There are three reasons for punishment that defense counsel often like to argue: punishment for punishment sake, punishment for rehabilitative purposes, and punishment to deter others. I’m a very rule-oriented person. When you hurt people, the only way the rest of us can be secure in our homes is if the people who have hurt us have been removed from our society.

DUPLANTIS: The judicial system is the way that our society is set up to deal with monsters, and monsters need to go away. In two and a half years, I have dealt with people that are truly dangerous, people that are just knuckleheads, people that are seemingly hopelessly addicted, and people who have found themselves in the wrong situation. You got to know as a judge how to treat each one of those cases in a different way – in a way that achieves justice. You cannot treat someone who has committed an atrocity the same way you can treat a kid who has been caught with less than a gram of cocaine.

Q: In reference to the lawsuit, how do we get the judges to do what is right in regards to the bail system?

KEMP: When we took office in 2015, there were seven new felony judges, and collectively, we already knew that was a concern. People are under a misconception that prosecutors want to keep people in jail, and you have to recognize that there are victims on the other side of these cases. These victims want a resolution to what it is that has happened in their life. But when we took office, we decided we wanted to do something to address this. We didn’t want to hold people in jail. Now, there are some people I think need to be there, but the vast majority of the low level offenders do not. So, we decided, [and] we wanted to be ahead of the curve, which is why I started a number of programs.

DUPLANTIS: There’s no good reason to put a poor person back in jail, if they have been showing up for their court appearances and done what they’ve been asked to do. Maybe they’ve made a mistake or somewhere they should have been; The bottom line is bail needs to be relieved. It has to be affordable and it has to be something we can count on and not feel like the rug is going to get pulled up from under us at any point.

The last Monday Night Politics – Meet the Candidates was held Jan. 29 and featured candidates from District 255, District 265, District 283 and Criminal District Court No. 1. The next forum will be held Feb. 5 for Criminal District Judge Court No. 6, Criminal District Judge Court No. 7, Family District Judge District 302, Family District Judge District 304 and Judge Court at Law No 2.

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