Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates for Justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

State judicial candidates
From left: Judge Staci Williams of the Texas 101st District Court; Elizabeth Davis Frizell, former Dallas County Criminal District Court judge; and Judge Tina Yoo Clinton of the Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 1 – Official photos of Williams and Fizell. Photo of Clinton courtesy of social media

 

By DIANE XAVIER

The Dallas Examiner

 

Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates, presented by The Dallas Examiner, featured Democratic candidates running for Supreme Court Justice Place 7, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Place 3 and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Place 4, at the African American Museum in Fair Park, Feb. 17.

The event kicked off with Supreme Court Place 7 candidate Judge Staci Williams. She is currently a judge of the Texas 101st District Court. The incumbent is Republican Jeffrey S. Boyd.

Williams introduced herself.

WILLIAMS: It is a pleasure to be back in Dallas. I’m your judge of the 101st District Court. You elected me twice, and I appreciate and thank you for your vote. I will be here, but I am running for the Texas Supreme Court. I think that the Dallas Morning News three weeks ago got it right when they said experience matters and the Dallas Morning News endorsed my candidacy over my opponent. Besides 27 years of legal experience in being a two term District Court Judge,  I have been an arbitrator for DART, the U.S. Postal Service, the Washington Metropolitan Airport Board, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

I have been in house corporate counsel in the telecommunications, retail and defense industries. I have been a municipal court judge for the City of Dallas, and an administrative judge for the EEOC. I tell you all that so you know that I have the depth and breadth of experience to start tackling those issues at the Texas Supreme Court. Also, I am a graduate of the Hockaday School, Smith College with a degree in economics and Georgetown University Law Center.

I just want to take a moment and explain why it matters about the Texas Supreme Court. I know you all are excited about the presidential race. But guess what? What happens in the Supreme Court matters. In June the U.S. Supreme Court said that they would no longer hear any cases regarding redistricting or gerrymandering. They are kicking it back to the states. So eventually, after the census, after the legislature withdraws their maps, it is going through the courts and it will be at the Texas Supreme Court.

And if you look at the makeup of the Texas Supreme Court, and if we don’t change it, we are in trouble. Right now the Texas Supreme Court, there are nine justices and all nine of them are from the other party. There is no one that looks like the majority of this audience on the Texas Supreme Court. And of the 174 year history of the Supreme Court, there has never been an African American female. It is time that our voices be heard. It is time you have someone.

She then answered questions from the audience.

QUESTION: What is your feeling about moving judges from being elected to being appointed?

WILLIAMS: One of the fortunate things in Texas is to elect our judges. If I had to be appointed, I probably would not get appointed. Because it is the good ol’ boys system all over again. The only time there came to be a problem was 2014 when Dallas County elected 14 Black judges, and then when they elected those 19 Black female judges last year in Harris County, they said enough is enough.

But the funny thing is when Justice Hecht said we need to have this committee he didn’t worry about I hope my Republican opponent got a part of the Texas Supreme Court, had never been a judge in his life. He was Rick Perry’s chief of staff. There was an opening and Rick Perry said, “Hey you want to be on the Texas Supreme Court?” Pretty good hookup right? But you get good ol’ boys in the Texas Supreme Court and you get good ol’ boys in and it is time that we change that. So I believe the elected system because then the pool of people get a chance to vote. It is not the exclusive Dallas Bar Association or the Texas State Bar or anyone else, the actual citizens of Texas get to vote and that’s what the Texas Supreme Court needs to be about.

Q: What is your opinion on the death penalty and in Texas leading the nation at that?

WILLIAMS: The Texas Supreme Court unlike the United States Supreme Court does not hear any criminal cases whatsoever. We have the court of criminal appeals which I think you are going to be hearing from those candidates later today. They are the court of last resort for criminal issues. And also I warn you if it is a sitting judge, we can’t give an opinion on a topic because that issue might come before us and we are bound by the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct not to give any indication on how we may or may not rule.

Q: What do you think your impact will be if you are elected to the Texas Supreme Court when there are nine from a different party, and now that you sit on the Supreme Court what will your impact be?

WILLIAMS: Well actually, to keep hope alive, there are four Democrats running and if all four of us win, we won’t be a majority but we will have strong dissenting opinions and it is getting that voice heard. Right now, our voices have not been heard. But I believe that we can work across the aisle because we are all lawyers, we are all judges and we want to do what’s best for the citizens of Texas and the issue has been that there have been one party and you have one idea. They need someone there to push the issue, to push the different ideas, for the decisions. So I think it is going to be great and we are going to make some decisions. Now there will probably be some issues where we will split down party lines and I expect that. But I think we will be able to work cohesively.

She then provided her closing statement.

WILLIAMS: I want to thank The Dallas Examiner and Mollie Belt for continuing to put on Monday Night Politics. I first appeared on Monday Night Politics in 2014 and appeared again in 2018 and this is the only forum like this in Dallas where the folks can come in and ask questions and actually learn about the races and the candidates. In the Supreme Court, for the first time in Texas in a long time, we have contested races in the Democratic Party. There is not only a crisis at the national stage, but there is a crisis throughout this whole country. And I am urging you to please vote from the bottom up. Every position is so important because if you just make a change at the top, you are not going to have change at the bottom.

In particularly in our courts, we are going to be facing a lot of important issues. I think the Supreme Court has started, it started with gerrymandering and redistricting, they are going to start passing more and more important issues to the states which makes it so important that we have the right people on the Texas Supreme Court and experience matters, and I am so proud of the endorsements that I have gotten. My endorsements represent the State of Texas so many different viewpoints and I am going to refer to you to my website www.judgestaci.com. Please be educated and realize experience matters, education matters. We need folks who understand what it is like to be a working class person and actually have to work for a job.

Next were candidates for Court of Criminal Appeals Place 3. Elizabeth Frizell, William Pieratt Demond and Dan Wood. Demond and Wood did not appear. Frizell gave her introduction.

 

FRIZELL: This is a great opportunity for us candidates to get our message out to a lot of voters, and I am running for a statewide office this time. I could have covered the entire state of Texas and I know you all know I can’t cover the entire state, not by myself, but I am hoping that I have you the people that are here that are listening to us through social media to tell other people about this. I am Judge Elizabeth Davis Frizell, and I am running for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 3.

We have bifurcated trials where there is the civil side and there is the criminal side. I have been a criminal district court judge in when we have trials if someone doesn’t like the outcome, they can appeal it to the court of criminal appeals. If they don’t like the outcome there, they can appeal it again to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. So I am running for the highest criminal court in the state of Texas. We hear all the death penalty cases. We also hear other cases throughout the state, and I will be able to make sure that I am reviewing the trials from judges across the state of Texas.

I know in Dallas we have become a lot more progressive than when I first started practicing law. I have been practicing criminal law for 26 years. But there are a lot of smaller towns that haven’t caught up to the times yet and it would be a pleasure for me to review the papers and say yes judge you did a great job, but no you are going to do that again because we are going to reverse or remand, and I can do that as a Texas Criminal Court judge.

I want to catch it before we have someone serving 16 years in the penitentiary for something they didn’t do; before they serve 22 years or 32 years because here in Dallas we are number one, not in Texas, but in the country in wrongful convictions. Why do we wait until someone has served that time? Well many times, the Texas Court of Criminal appeals takes a pass. And they don’t even listen to the case. Do you know they have the discretion or authority to do that? Well maybe we can make some changes to get some new people in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. I have been a judge on every level except for the appellate level. I am experienced and ready to go to the highest level, and I am asking for you to send me to the highest level.

Frizell then answered questions.

Q: Recently, in the last election we had allowed judges to sit on multiple benches in small rural towns so they can pass cases either quickly, or I think it is more of a biased issue bouncing your bias around. How do you feel about judges serving in multiple municipalities?

FRIZELL: The way the law is set up now, in some counties they do that. In fact I just had a case in Titus, Texas, and there was a judge there where some of the counties are very, very small, so it’s not like Dallas County. If there may be several different counties that are close and they will go and serve in different counties. I am going to tell you the positives and negatives of that. The negatives are if you have one judge in each county sometimes a judge may come in once a month. I had that happen in my clients case and it was resetted, resetted, resetted until the judge was in that county at that particular time. I think that is a negative to have judges serving in multiple counties.

The positive is sometimes if you don’t do that they might have a judge to serve in that particular county, so when I was a municipal court judge, this was maybe 20 years ago, I was able to serve as a municipal court judge and actually practiced law. I practiced for 13 years before I ran for judge. I couldn’t practice in the court that I served in, but I was able to do both, but I never served in several different areas. I took it one at a time. I started as a judge for the city of Dallas, and then when I finished I served for the city of Balch Springs.

Q: You had mentioned the death penalty that you have or would hear death penalty cases. What would determine if you would hear a death penalty case?

FRIZELL: Well, we would hear all the death penalty cases. The death penalty cases when I say direct appeal that means generally when you appeal a case you had your trial, you didn’t like the outcome and you appeal to the court of appeals. On death penalty cases, you skip the court of appeals and you go directly to the Court of Criminal appeals, so all of those come directly to us and we would hear all of them as an automatic appeal. It would come to us. We would hear all of them. It is important who serves on this highest court, the court of Criminal Appeals.

Right now everyone on this court is nine judges, are Republicans. Most of them do not have any defense attorney background. It’s important because as a defense attorney before I became a judge, I get to see that there are people that are behind that case. It’s not just an appellate brief that you read. There is a family that you are affecting. Anytime it is reset, they are anxiously waiting for the ruling, and you understand how much it affects families.

Q: Are there any African American, people of color, because there appears to be one, is there one in this seat?

FRIZELL: Well, there will be one when I get there. That’s an excellent question. There is zero and more than 50% of the cases that I hear are African American males that are defendants. But there are no African Americans male or female on this court. There are no Democrats.  I think we need to change that. The time that I have been serving on the court, I’m adding up my time as a lawyer and as my time as a judge, the majority of the defendants are African American and Hispanic. Why is it that we can all be in front of the bench and we can’t be on the bench?

The answer is with early voting starts. Let’s go all the way. I am asking you to take me to the highest court. I’m ready. I am experienced. I came in number one in the Bar Poll. I have two Democratic opponents for all the people who are in this race. I came in number one, and you know who votes in that? All lawyers across the entire state of Texas who are saying that I am ready and I am the best candidate who is qualified for this particular race, I agree and I hope you all do too.

Q: If you see something like a situation where an attorney is asleep during a death penalty case, how would you handle that differently?

FRIZELL: You don’t get an automatic writ, but you can file a writ. And many writs are filed, it’s just a post appeal. A way of saying if something happens wrong in this trial, then I know may appeal to this whatever my time limit is I can still file a writ or if you are asking a judge for an order to overturn. On the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, we have the power to say no you didn’t get this right. You know what they said in the case where the lawyer was sleeping, they said it didn’t happen in the critical stage of the trial. What is a critical stage of the trial if my life is on the line, my family? Every stage is a critical stage of the trial. You shouldn’t be sleeping through any of it.

I can’t tell you how I will vote in a case in advance, but I do know this, that if someone is sleeping as a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge, I have the power to remand that says you are going to do this trial again. And can we have a fair trial this time. I have the power to do that under the right facts and circumstances. And I would do that under the right facts and circumstances. That is a part of what we should be doing. Sometimes the judges on this court don’t even hear the case. And they have the discretion to do that. That’s not fairness and that’s not justice. You are sending us here to hear the case to render a decision.

She then provided her closing statement.

 

FRIZELL: I know that you all know that I recently ran for District Attorney in 2018. And I got 49.999%. I am going to assume that there was a supporter that hoped that I won last time, but here is why I say that. A lot of times people say that my vote doesn’t matter. It’s just one vote. What difference does it make. On election night, they told me I was 500 votes short and there was a current investigation for 2500 ballots. Your one vote makes a difference. Each person in this room just tells 10 people, do you know that that can swing an election? This is one of the most important election years.

Don’t make this thing be the same thing as last time you are sitting at home and say ‘Oh somebody else will vote and it doesn’t matter. Your voice matters. Your vote matters. Anytime you complain about somebody needing to do something about that, that somebody is you. And you can work it through, and I’m your instrument to be used for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. I will be your voice. To say there are families, this just isn’t a piece of paper, there are families behind this.

I have the experience and I think I am uniquely qualified out of any other candidates in this race because not only have I tried every type of case from theft to rape, to robbery, to murder, capital murder, as a lawyer, I’ve presided almost all over every type of case as a judge. Rape, arson, capital murder, death penalty writs and I not only have the judicial and trial experience, I’ve done appellate briefs, and I know the time limits. I know how to do ciations as a writer and researcher. We have the wealth of knowledge and experience right here.

Last were candidates for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 4, Tina Clinton and Steven Miears. Tina Clinton, is a judge of the Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 1. Miears did not appear.

Clinton introduced herself to the audience.

 

CLINTON: I have the honor of serving you currently in Dallas County as your judge of Criminal District Court No. 1. We are in our 126th year in this criminal court. It is the oldest criminal court in the state of Texas. And it is my pleasure to be representing you. In 2020, I have the honor of running for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Place 4. I believe that my colleagues have already explained much about these courts, and I don’t know how much more I can add. I can tell you why this race is so important and why 2020 is so pivotal.

One of the cases you might not be aware about is about a man named Mr. Moore. He was sentenced to die. He was on death row when a Supreme Court came down called Atkins that basically said that if you are intellectually disabled you do not qualify for the death penalty. He believed that he was intellectually disabled. He petitioned throught a writ up to the court of criminal appeals, and he asked that his sentence be reduced from death penalty to someting else. The court of criminal appeals sent down to the trial court, and said please do a fact determining as to whether he is mentally disabled. The state through the district attorney’s office and the defense agreed that he was mentally disabled. The court wrote an opinion saying that we do find that he is mentally disabled and sent it up to the court of criminal appeals. They disregarded that finding and they made their own findings saying that he is fine to be executed. It went up to the Supreme Court in 2017 and in 2017 the Supreme Court said you are wrong, do it again. What did the court of criminal appeals do? Same thing. And it had to go back up to the Supreme Court and in 2019 the Supreme Court told them yet again you are wrong. Do it again. You deserve better ladies and gentlemen. 2020 is our chance.

She then answered questions.

Q: Are there any Asian Americans anywhere or nonwhites on the court that you are currently running on?

CLINTON: No. Just as Judge Williams and Frizell talked about, you have nine Republicans on each and it includes men and women. Actually there are more women on the court of criminal appeals, but there are no people of color currently.

Q: It’s not a secret that the bench has been Republican and Caucasian for a number of years. We haven’t had Democratic leadership in Austin in awhile. What have you done or been doing to campaign to get the word out because it is expensive to run and stabilize a race? What have you done to get the word out?

CLINTON: We have been running around the state of Texas. We have been crisscrossing and we meet on the roads and at certain locations, but we have been going out not only to urban areas but suburban areas, and we also have been going out to rural areas. Because I think in the last time we saw in 2018 as that not only were we relatively close, we were about four percentage in some of these courts. But we also saw that the rural areas came up a little bit because of the fact that Beto when he ran for Congress, he actually went to all 254 counties and we saw them flip up just a little bit but not enough.

We turned suburban areas like Williamson County that was the reddest county in the state of Texas, and we know that we can turn red counties blue. We need to work on Tarrant County because that is the last urban area that has not flipped and they are pretty close. We need to turn Collin County and we need to work the rural areas not so that we win them but because we just get a percentage of them.

Q: Who are you endorsed by? Who are your top three endorsers?

CLINTON: So I have been endorsed by organizationally the Dallas Morning News, the San Antonio Express News, and the Austin Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle has endorsed me. Statewide, Texas AFL-CIO COPE, Tejano Democrats, tons of attorneys, Association of Women Attorneys, the Black Bar from Austin, the Hispanic Bar from Austin as well as 99% of all the endorsing Democrat Clubs of the state of Texas.

She then provided her closing statement.

CLINTON: So one of the issues that I want to talk to you about is that I understand that there will be three of us in 2020 and hope that I can confirm your vote so that I can be one of those three that represent you in the upcoming 2020 November election. One of the issues that we have in this highest court is not only that they are struggling with issues and they are struggling badly, because the Supreme Court has had to tell them twice on this issue. But they are also struggling because they refused to write robust opinions they sometimes refuse to write opinions at all. They just deny a writ by saying it’s denied. That leaves us to ponder as lawyers because we don’t know how to tell people what they can expect in the criminal court justice system. That’s not justice and that’s not fairness.

The highest court that has the ability to do what they do should give you a reason and a rationale for what they do. That’s a way that fairness and justice and process actually works. What most Texans don’t know is that there is lacking in the court of criminal appeals. It has been lacking for a long time and because they are not in danger of elections. 2020 is different folks. 2020 we actually have an opportunity to demand better. We have an opportunity to demand a court that actually does its job. Not only for all Texans but for the criminal justice system overall. Because what happens at the top influences the bottom. We know that. We know that we can do great things here in Dallas County, and it can be overturned by those top courts. This is an opportunity for us to demand better not only for ourselves but for our families, our neighbors and all Texans. We don’t have to wait for a President to do this. What do we have to do in order to do this? Vote.

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