Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates featuring candidates for criminal, family and district court

MNPMTC 02.05.18

The Dallas Examiner

Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates, presented by The Dallas Examiner, highlighted the Democratic candidates running for criminal court, family court and county court at law positions in front of a packed crowd at the African American Museum, Feb. 5.

Candidates aiming for Criminal Court No 6 kicked off the political forum with incumbent Jeanine Howard and Alison Grinter. Howard started off by introducing herself and her qualifications for re-election.

“I’m a very fair and compassionate judge,” she said. “I’m ethical, respected, thorough never rushed to judgment and listen to details of every case. I hope I’ve made a difference and I want to continue making a difference in Dallas.”

Alison followed by introducing her qualifications and personality to the audience.

“I’m a 12 year veteran criminal defense attorney and I’m board certified, [which] only 3 percent of lawyers are,” she said. “In a felony court, you want three things on the bench: someone who knows the law, the people and employs the law with compassion and respect to hold the public’s trust. You need someone who is humble, out with the people and gets to know the folds that they are dealing with.”

Shortly after, audience members took advantage of the opportunity to ask the candidates questions about their judicial experiences.

QUESTION: What is the future of the judicial system to you and what changes do you advocate for?

GRINTER: The elephant in the room of any discussion about the felony courts right now is bail reform. We have to have people not staying in jail just because they’re poor. Because, frankly, you have a different set of rules when you’re in jail. People make decisions and choices that we write down are voluntary and knowingly involuntary. When you’re in jail, you’re going to make decisions to get out of jail and that leads people to having criminal convictions that haunt them for the rest of their lives. If they had the time and ability to exercise their rights, they wouldn’t have – and I think we all know somebody who has – a criminal conviction that they took to get out of jail. So we have to have individualized criminal assessments that judge whether people are a risk to the community or a risk to a recidivat.

HOWARD: I think the judicial system is in a good spot right now. There’s debate on whether or not judges should be elected or appointed by the governor and I’m personally in favor of judges being elected so the people have a voice in who they have. I do think that judges should, especially criminal judges, have the experience on both sides before they are elected judge – criminal defense work as well as prosecution. I know that’s not an requirement. I do have that. In fact, I have also done appellate work, which I have done 200 appeals [that were] published in law books. I have the advantage of having that experience to help me as a judge. Those are just extra added things that should be [required] because you can see the big picture when you’ve done it from both sides.

Q: Describe a controversial situation where you may have offended someone and how did you handle it?

GRINTER: Kind of hard to narrow that down honestly. I’ve been fighting really hard for people in that very powerful folks have wanted to just go away and I’ve been fighting for folks like that for a long time. That tends to rub people the wrong way. I was in the public defender’s office for six and a half years. I was asked to leave the public defender’s office on a case where I was standing up for a Black Lives Matter activist who had been arrested by the Dallas police for nothing more than a Facebook post in a time when that was incredibly politically unpopular. But honestly my career is littered with that sort of stuff. Standing up for people is what folks like me do.

HOWARD: I honestly can say I never had a position that angered or offended people knowingly. One time I was reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Commission for speaking to the media about a very emotional case. But it wasn’t really an argument. I just caused a lot of media attention. I get along with almost everybody so I don’t really have anything to add to that.

Q: Dallas County is one of the leading cities in the nation in wrongly convicting and sending innocent people to prison. What have you done and/or will you do to keep innocent people from going to prison?

HOWARD: That’s why I’m very meticulous and I listen to every detail that goes into a jury trial because I have to make rulings. I listen to everything [and] review all of the evidence because I don’t want anyone from my court wrongly convicted. So far, in 11 years that has not happened and that will never happen. Those are the safeguards I’ve had in place. I watch closely and make sure that the attorneys are doing their job. If for some reason I don’t think that they are, then occasionally when a defendant says he’s not getting along with his attorney and he’s not doing anything for him – it’s not the norm – but every now and then I will let them have another attorney. I want it to be the right way the first time.

GRINTER: I think that we lead the nation in highlighting our wrongful convictions. I feel like we are not outside the norm in convicting people wrongfully but rather in just catching our mistakes and fixing it. I think that in those situations where you have major cases with DNA evidence and that sort of thing where people are going to be in prison for a very long time you have an opportunity. Thanks to Craig Watkins and the Conviction Integrity Unit we started to take that opportunity to make sure that people even who have been convicted we can re-examine those. However, I think that in the smaller cases where people will take a plea in order to get out of jail, you’re going to see there are a lot more wrongful convictions because people will plea guilty in order to get out of jail. So in order to maintain actual conviction integrity we got to get people in a place where can make those decisions and that’s not in jail.

Contenders for Criminal Court No. 7, Chika Anyiam, Heath Harris and Mark Watson then took the stage. Anyiam revealed her reasoning for running for the judicial district.

“I am running for Criminal Court No. 7 because I am very passionate about people having access to justice, equal protection under the law and the presumption of innocence for everyone no matter who you are,” she said.

Harris took advantage of his time by disclosing his extensive experience holding various positions within the courtroom.

“I know every position that comes before me on the bench whether you are a baby prosecutor or a seasoned defense attorney I know the game on both sides,” he said. “I know exactly what the state can [and] what the defense can do.”

Watson conveyed to the crowd his future plans to aid with recidivism issues and providing ex-offenders employment, if elected.

“We’re going to help them get a job for two years and if they can work for two years and stay out of trouble, I believe Judge Cruezot or Judge Frizell in two years will look at their record and we can sit down and decide if that man’s case should be expunged so they can have a clean record for life,” he explained.

A Q&A session was held afterward, primarily focusing on criminal justice reform.

Q: What is your personal opinion on lethal injections?

HARRIS: I think I’m probably the only one on the stage that has actually witnessed an execution and been to Huntsville, Texas, to witness an execution. We witness the execution because we wanted to know what happens when you say someone is going to get the death penalty what does that really mean. I can tell you that it is not a good choice. They basically just put you to sleep … I know the entire process because I have that experience. The bottom line is my opinion on the lethal injection is it is not a choice. It does not work and I do believe the state of Texas like other states will eventually get rid of the lethal injection. The process that they [originally] used is they would put you to sleep, paralyze you and then stop your heart. Now, they just give you the “long nap,” [which is how] they refer to it. The process just does not work. If it worked, we wouldn’t continue to have capital murders year after year.

ANYIAM: The problems I have with lethal injections is that sometimes it’s faulty. Even though whoever is deserving the death penalty – if it is someone who is really guilty – because we do know DNA has exonerated a lot of people, which is one of the reasons that I don’t believe in the death penalty. Juries get it wrong sometimes. Judges get it wrong sometimes, but lethal injection – the problem I have with it – is sometimes wouldn’t recommend it. I do not like the lethal injection.

WATSON: I’m going to answer it; I’ll tell you why. If a judge at one time comes out publicly and say they’re against the death penalty, a prosecutor [may] get mad at them and try to throw them off the case. Now, what I’ll say is I will offer some observations that a lot of people agree with and believe in and that’s how I’ll approach this. Trials are not perfect and everyone thinks that the justice system is going so good today. We can try the death penalty next week and still be convicting an innocent man. Death is permanent. That’s one of the knocks of the death penalty. It’s mostly applied to poor people and African Americans.

Q: What have you done as defense attorneys to combat the bail issue?

WATSON: The main thing we’re up against is there’s a lot of private interest out there that are very powerful and the issue is will they [the defendants] show up. That’s what bail is for. I’ve been fighting it for 25 years. One thing I’m going to do if I’m a judge, is I’m going to appoint an attorney for the day, pay them as cheap as I can and have him do the research on all the new people in jail [to see] if they have a job and [a family] to go to; If we can get them off and give them a PR bond – I don’t care if they live under a bridge – if they can show back to court.

ANYIAM: This is something we all face as defense attorneys. All through my career as an attorney, I’ve always asked the judge for a lower bond or a PR bond for my low-level clients if their cases aren’t being moved quickly enough due to program delays or those sort of things. So as a judge, I’m going to keep an eye on my docket [and] make sure when I do have a low level offender hit the docket that I will let that person up on the jail chain determine through the defense attorney whether they have ties the community, money, truly indigent and grant them PR bonds or lower bonds.

HARRIS: It’s very popular for everyone to be like ‘Let’s let everybody out,’ and that’s not how it works. I’ll give you the perfect example: You can be charged with extensional felony possession of controlled substance. You know what a good defense attorney is going to do if given the opportunity? If that bond is $15,000, because you are a repeat offender, a good defense attorney is going to get you in front of that judge and say ‘Let’s have a bond hearing.’ That judge is going to say ‘If I let you out today, are you clean?’ Because I let you out on a PR bond today you know what you’re going to do? You’re going to reoffend and you may have committed an even greater crime, if intoxicated. So when you talk about bail reform I’m not here to tell you what you want to hear. I’m telling you what you need to know. The bottom line is when we talk about an appropriate bond it’s different from case to case. Unfortunately, the bail system is set up the way it where you can be rich, commit a murder and get out.We do need to address that but just giving everybody a PR bond is not the solution.

Q: With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, how would you present and address these sexual assault/harassment cases and ensure you will act properly?

HARRIS: The reality is the judge doesn’t know the facts until those facts are presented on a case by case basis that’s why the justice is suppose to have a blindfold on. People have no ideal how easy it is for you to be charged with sexual assault and for someone to say you touched them inappropriately. This is sexual assault, if I did it with intention of gratifying myself.

Harris touched Watson on the shoulder and continued.

HARRIS: People have no idea how easy it is, but to what I would say to your question is like any other case that would come before me; I’m going to base it on all the evidence. I’m going to give each side an opportunity to present their case and then we’ll make a decision based on the evidence. If it’s going to the jury I’m going to make sure the jury has all the law that it needs and only the admissible evidence gets seen so they can render a just and proper verdict. Again, it is on a case by case basis.

WATSON: That’s a great question but you’re asking the referee. We have to bend over backward because we can think someone is guilty as all get out and no matter how much we want that person convicted or maybe even get 50 to 60 years, we can’t put our finger on the scale. One thing we can do is we can make sure that the complainant gets a fair day in court and is treated with respect. We’re not going to bully them; We’re not going to allow the defense lawyer to bully them or pick on them but by the same token a judge’s job is to make sure that all parties get a fair shake. Let me just say this quickly. All judges will appoint … there’s a saying that all prosecutors love a good defense lawyer because it’s easier to try a case with a good defense lawyer than a crappy one and I’m going to appoint good defense lawyers.

ANYIAM: I agree that the judges need to appoint competent attorneys to try those kind of very serious cases and I’m proud to say that is one for the cases I really do well in because I like to dig into the details of the case – both the victim, the defendants and everything else around it. So that’s very important to make sure that credible evidence comes through so that you don’t have wrongful convictions. I do question my opponent’s, Mr. Harris, judgment on this issue. I question the judgement of someone who would dismiss a case when an investigator in the district attorney’s office took a bribe and influenced the prosecutor to dismiss someone who was charged with a sexual case. I think that is poor judgement and you need people on the bench who will have integrity and will not be influenced by everybody.

HARRIS: The case was dismissed on its merits. If you look no one has ever said anything that the case wasn’t supposed to be dismissed. It was brought to my attention so I dismissed it and it wasn’t by the investigator. The bottom line is anyone that will be held against their will on a case that should be dismissed I’m going to urge those prosecutors to move that case as quickly as possible. That is what happened in that case. If the investigator duped in the beginning of the month again I don’t know nothing about that. If you look back on Fox 4 I told you the same thing back then.

Next, nominees for Family Court District 302, Thelma Clardy and Sandra Jackson, were presented. Jackson introduced herself first.

“Why I am running for this bench is because for the last five years I was an assistant district attorney and as such I have learned in the trenches of the family law court – particularly in the 305 and 302 district courts that deal with divorces and CPS – I see families in crisis when they come in the court,” she said. “I’m asking that the family courts have compassion and justice for families that come in there in crisis because there’s nothing worse than coming in court being afraid that you can lose your children, having them be sent to foster home and you’re never going to see them again.”

Clardy discussed her mission statement to the member of the audience.

“My mottos is ‘Justice with a Mission’ and that mission is to represent all types of clients,” she said.

The candidates followed up with an questioning session with audience members to address their qualifications and ideologies.

Q: What are your plans for our judicial system?

CLARDY: If I’m elected as a judge of the 302nd district court, one thing I have already have been daring to do is to have an expansion of pro bono system. [I] have represented poor people with low income and I use to be a legal aid lawyer at one time and a civil rights attorney when I worked for the federal government. Two of the case I was involved in went to the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the things I want to do is have an expanded program. We have kind of partial program now – The Van Sickle Program at SMU – but it’s only a few. I want to appoint attorneys. I want to expand the Dallas volunteer attorney program, as well as have an attorney for legal aid of Northwest Texas to be down there at the courthouse. One other thing I want to do is have a night court. So many clients [can’t] take off work to be in court. Well I [want] to have at least one night, weekly or every other week.

JACKSON: Well I think the judicial system is in the process of being more progressive and a part of that progression has to do with how we as lawyers and those of us who want to be judges handle community where they come into our courtroom. It is important, in my opinion, that you have to have some kind of vision and plan to get that done. The way we do it in the family court, particularly in the 302nd, the legacy court is a part of that process. What that does is helps to help young families who have come in and have drug addiction, mental health and mental instability issues work through those issues to help become more stabilized so they can effectively manage their families and their lives. One of the things you want to able to do is to open that court up so that the community can have more access to it. One of the other things and would advocate for, particularly in family law, is to be sure that you have enough lawyers available, pro bono and quote appointed, and increase the hourly rate of quote appointed lawyers so we can get more lawyers to spend that time and impact the way the court is ran.

Q: Are you willing to listen to both sides of the story rather than just the attorney general in terms of child support?

CLARDY: That is an issue near to my heart. The attorney general can be on your side of against your side. I’m a firm believer that the attorney general, in my experience, has been more for the custodial parent than the noncustodial parent. I firmly believe that child support needs to determined on a individual basis. I do not believe that necessarily have to impose the child support guideline in each and every case because they may not apply. I represented many men who were messed over because the court applied the standard child support. Men who were going beyond and over to care of their children and we have receipts to show all that, too and the court said ‘Sorry. You’re going to pay the standard child support guide.’ That was not right and if I’m elected your judge I promise you I will look at every case on an individual basis.

JACKSON: Child support is a really big issue. I do think that looking at the entirety of the case is important. The guidelines are discretionary and there is an opportunity when you present all of the evidence to the court for the court to go beyond the guidelines so that you’re not actually just into the cookie cutter scenario. If that father is able to present direct payment to the mother and extracurricular activities and establish the pattern he has done directly and bring those receipts to the court, the court does have the discretion to change that it can go beyond the guidelines. There is always mitigation if you present it in a proper fashion. I believe that the court can make that adjustment so that fathers aren’t stuck with that guideline support, particularly if that is doing more than the guideline requires. Child support is not just for the noncustodial parent to the pay the custodial parent. Child support is about the child. It’s about the child’s ability to maintain a certain kind of lifestyle that he or she is entitled to.

Q: Explain the amount of family law cases you’ve worked on.

CLARDY: I’ve had too many to count. Normally I’ll have up to 200 cases a year. The reason why I know that is because I keep a docket system with a schedule of how many clients I see each month. If you pull up the Dallas County list, you will see that just over the last three years I’ve had over 200 cases in family law. That does not include my probate and juvenile cases either.

JACKSON: [The] last five years I have been practicing as an assistant district attorney. So if you were to try and look my name up to see how many cases I’ve had in the last five years you won’t see that. As an assistant district attorney, I had between 125 and 150 cases per docket and I handled that every single day. So I’ve been in that piece of it in the trenches on handling and managing that caseload. It’s daily docket management and it’s a daily fight for civil rights. It is an area of family law. You can combine all of that. This is an area of family law that needs to be addressed. It is the current crisis that is going on at the courthouse.

District 302 was followed by contenders running for Family District Court 304: incumbent Andrea Martin and LaDeitra Adkins. Martin kicked off the discussion reminding the audience of her overall career as current District 304 judge.

“When I ran for office in 2014, I ran on the promise that I was going to protect our children and keep our families safe and I’ve kept that promise,” she said.

Adkins presented herself and stated her intention for the juvenile court.

“I’ve decided to run for a few reasons,” she said. “If CPS comes into your life and take your child, I believe that you have an unconditional right to fight them. You have an unconditional right to have a hearing. No matter what they say you have a right to fight for your child. Above all things I believe that no matter what has happened in your life that brought you to the juvenile court you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Audience members raised questions about the candidates’ stances on several controversial topics in the area.

Q: What do you believe are the root causes of the high number of juvenile delinquencies in court?

MARTIN: First, I would like to say I absolutely agree with [Adkins] that people need to be treated respectfully in hearings and I’ve had over 1,000 hearings each year since I’ve taken the bench because that’s what I’m doing to make sure that each one of you have your right for justice. [In juvenile court], we have split the docket. We hear juvenile delinquencies cases. They have a right to come before me if they want to. They choose to go before my associate judge so they can get their cases moved quickly. Regarding the number of cases we’re having there’s been an extreme spike in cases lately as you’ve seen on the news. What we are doing now is we’re looking at that. We have professionals at the juvenile department who are dealing with that. We’re looking at what services in addition to what we already offer that we need to apply to that. We have a policy in the juvenile court that we want to make sure that we rehab and not criminalize children because these are all of our children.

ADKINS: I would imagine it could be attributed to some of it to the lack of parenting, lack of dads or moms in the house and just society in general. Things happen if kids somehow fall into the wrong crowd. What I think the juvenile department needs to do is to continue with the divert courts that they have. Some of them should be implemented differently but if we can divert kids out of this system we should do it.

Q: What is your stance on DACA and undocumented children?

MARTIN: We have special statuses of children where we actually have attorneys to come and file paperwork so we can make sure that they can have a chance to stay in the country. I worked very closely with the Mexican Council. In addition, I have attorneys who are on staff who volunteer their time to do immigration work. I’ve partnered with clinics at SMU and community programs to make sure if there is an issue with DACA taking a child that we are going to do what we can to protect that child.

ADKINS: I believe any kid that came here with their parent should have a path to citizenship [as well as] the parent.

Q: Martin, you weren’t on the bench a lot the first couple of years in office. What are you going to be doing different? Adkins, what are you going to do to make it better?

MARTIN: The truth is, if you look at my numbers you know I’m on the bench. I’m on the bench everyday by 8:15 a.m. There are attorneys in my court who know that. Whenever there is a docket in my cort, I’m there. If I wasn’t there [the news] would be able to write a story on me about that. So what I would do different is nothing. I’m going to make sure I continue protecting our families and do what’s right for our children in Dallas County.

ADKINS: I’ve been working since I was 14. I have no issue coming to work. I will come to work. I will be there from the morning to the afternoon. What you need to know about the juvenile court is that it consist of emergencies, so you need to be there to work.

The event concluded with the candidates running for County Court at Law No 2 positions: Dorotha Ocker and Melissa Bellan. Ocker deliberately highlighted the primary focus of her campaign and how her goals tie in with her personal life.

“I know what it is like to come from nothing and build yourself up,” she said. “My focus is on justice and bringing it to people who can’t always afford it and understanding what is going on in their lives.”

Bellan elaborated her potential position’s duties as well as her intentions for the district.

“[Court at Law judges] do deal with cases that have to deal with money but there is a lot more that the court does,” she explained. “I think the important thing is making sure that every person that comes through that court feels like they are heard and at least get a chance to tell their story and they feel like there is some justice in the end. It may not always work out the way that you hope it does but at least I want to make sure that everyone feels like they had their fair chance.”

After introductions, both candidates responded to inquiries provided by audience members about their plans for the judicial system.

Q: What is you vision for the county court and what changes do you advocate for?

OCKER: One of the things that has come up is there’s been a drop in filings and Don Huffines actually wants to get rid of our county courts. I want to make sure sitting as the county court judge that I make county courts a place where people want to file. You can choose which county courts you file in. I want to make sure I do that but make sure we’re efficient and get cases done quickly. Justice delayed is justice denied. People need to get to their jury trials. That’s where they feel heard when they know that they were able to talk to their peers and get their story across. County courts have often been known for that and we need to bring that back [so] that we are bringing justice to people as quickly as possible.

BELLAN: I agree with Ms. Ocker that time is one of the most precious things that we have inside and outside of our courts. However, there is some things that have to be done in the right orders and to make sure procedurally things go correctly so you don’t end up in a situation where you have to do it again. One of the things I’ll like to see change in our civil justice system is partially the way we work with juries. As an attorney, I know that I have to ask a lot more questions about a car wreck case than I do in an appointment case. One of the things we can do to make our courts more efficient is have some standing orders for our court so that both lawyers and folks are representing themselves know that either [the facts] are coming in or not. Consistency is what gives efficiency.

Q: How would you handle pro se litigants and ensure they are heard by jury?

OCKER: Pro se [litigants] are people who are representing themselves. I’ve had in some of my cases some pro se defendants. I’m surprised a lot of people don’t know about Legal Aid of Northwest Texas. They don’t know that they might be able to have somebody help them in a case. I’ve been in courtrooms against pro se attorneys and the judge maintains a list of people who might be able to help them. I don’t know any of those people but I have a list. I’ve also experienced in pro se cases where, if you are a good mediator who might be able to donate some of their services, they can bring the parties together and help the parties work out their own situations so that someone is not disadvantaged by not knowing the rules of the court. That’s what I see judges do and that’s what I’ve done in my own practice. It seems to be very effective to making sure people get the resolutions they need.

BELLAN: In my experience, particularly in JP courts, everyone represents themselves. So you have a lot of folks who are just trying to take care of their own business. They didn’t go to law school for three years like we did and they don’t know the ins and outs. Some of the things I’ll like to see done is to make sure there is a standing order about your expectations and things folks may not know. They will be held to same rules that the lawyers. That’s the law here in Texas as unfair as that may sound. As a judge it is my job to make sure that I am making clear to those folks what it is they’re going to have to do to get through that process. The other things I’ll like to see in our courts is we do have some forms [with] civil courts having less than others. But one thing we don’t do is provide them in multiple languages. Our community is made up of all kinds of folks and being able to let people see how they can do things is a way they can understand is really key and somethings the courts can do make Pro Ses have a little bit of a better time.

Q: Why should voters support you?

BELLAN: I ask for your support today because of my commitment both to justice and our democratic values. I was the party’s attorney in Dallas prior to this new litigation from 2010-2014. What I did there was to be an order of protection lawyer. I put together a team of lawyers that we worked every Election Day. If somebody called in and said ‘There’s a cop car sitting outside the polling place intimidating voters,’ we could dispatch a lawyer over there to take care of it … There are things that I bring to the table with my experience as a lawyer to the time I served as a justice of the peace also the things I bring to you all as a good democrat to make sure that we are getting the absolute best that we can at all times.

OCKER: I’ve been a democrat my entire life which is, where I’m from, probably the most controversial stance I’ve ever taken. I was precinct chair in Carrollton. We flipped my precinct blue [democrat]. I ran in 2016 against Matt Rinaldi and increased the democratic share of votes from 39 percent to 49 percent. I love being a democrat and knocking on doors and saying I’m a democrat. I do have the commitment to the Democratic Party and a commitment to justice because it is what I decided to do ever since I graduated law school. I tell people I don’t consider it just a profession to be a lawyer I consider it a calling from God to say, “Go out here and help people.” That’s what I’ve done my entire career and that’s what I want to bring as your next judge of County Court at Law No. 2.

The last Monday Night Politics was held Feb. 12 featuring 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 candidates. The next forum will be held Feb. 19 for the Democratic nominees running for Judge Criminal Court No 10, Judge Criminal Court of Appeals No 1, Judge Criminal Court of Appeals No 2, Justice of the Peace Precinct No 5 Place 2 and Constable Precinct 1.

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