By MIKE McGEE
The Dallas Examiner
“Your vote matters. Our vote matters,” Appellate Justice Robbie Partida-Kipness called out on the rooftop of the Hilton Tru Hotel to an audience gathered March 25 for the Texas Justice Tour.
Those gathered repeated after her in unison.
“Do everything you can. We’re planting seeds today. Make it happen,” she added.
The tour was one of several that are scheduled by Democrats across the state in preparation of the 2024 elections.
Intended to bring elected officials – such as the district attorney, court judges and other public servants – to local residents, the ongoing events are an effort for Democrats to unite and for citizens to address questions to those who play a role in the county’s legal system, according to Appellate Justice Tina Clinton.
“I think, even though judges try as much as they can, that a lot of people aren’t going to come to our courts even though they’re open; you’re not going to ask the questions that maybe you [have], and you don’t know, per se, what’s going on in Austin that may be impacting us as communities,” she explained.
“It gives you an opportunity to get to know the people who are sitting in the black robes that, when they’re in the black robes, seem a little bit unapproachable.”
One of the topics Clinton addressed was fallout from the pandemic.
“One of the biggest problems that we have … is the technological backbone. And we know from our two years in COVID, that technology can give access to the public, can give access to the citizenry, and that technology can be useful if used in the right way,” Clinton said.
She explained that the COVID-19 shutdown caused county courts to close to the public for about a year, creating a backlog of cases that judges now have to push through. Obsolete technology exacerbates the problem.
“In the criminal courthouse, our main computer is a 1950s mainframe. A 1950s mainframe. You heard that right,” the judge affirmed.
“Not having that 21st century computer system means that the amount of information is limited, the way that the data is available is limited, not just for the public but also for the judges,” she said. “I’ve been on that warpath for the last 13 years that I’ve been in Frank Crowley.”
Still, Clinton was pleased that the courts’ building was “on the cusp of going live” with an up-to-date case management system.
“When it’s all said and done, it will improve Dallas County, it will make information access easier, and it will greater the information access that everyone has, from the public to the judges.”
She also emphasized the need for jurors to “show up and show out.”
Appellate Justice Erin Nowell urged residents to get involved by voting. She reflected upon why she ran for judge of the Supreme Court of Texas.
“It is sad how few people really understand how the justice system works, how the judicial system works in Texas,” she remarked. “And that a vote for court of appeals judges, for Texas Supreme Court judges, really can affect the laws of our state in a way that people don’t understand.”
She acknowledged that representatives in Austin make the laws.
“That’s certainly important, but it’s the judges that interpret the law, and apply the law, and so when there is a question – which more often than not there are because we have so many legislators that aren’t lawyers… that then lends itself to interpretation by your trial courts, by your courts of appeals, by your supreme courts,” Nowell said.
She said that if people can make a major difference in how laws are interpreted and applied by understanding the judiciary system and voting for judicial candidates that have the same reading and understanding about how the law should be applied.
“We refer to our court of appeals as ‘the last line of defense,’ because … we have to take this case. We’re going to hear that appeal … we have more of a say than I think people realize,” Nowell continued.
When hearing a case, the court of appeals generally has the final verdict. However, they may send it back to the trail court or the parties could ask for a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
She also spoke about the need for diversity on the bench.
“We have 14 courts of appeals – 80 justices. There is exactly one African American; you’re looking at her,” Nowell said as she stressed that any appeal would go to one of the courts, and if appeals involve African Americans, “they’re never going to walk into a court and see someone who looks like them.
“They’re never going to walk into a court and see someone who has a background that could reflect what’s going on in their lives.”
Appellate Justice Ken Molberg confirmed, “Any time your judiciary looks like your citizenry you’re in better shape.”
Constable Deanna Hammond of Precinct 2 echoed that what happens in Austin affects the county. Her region, which includes East Dallas, Mesquite, Balch Springs and Rowlett, deals with some of the same factors, such as gun control and mental illness, that other large cities face.
“Myself and my deputies are on the front line, so we’re out there day-to-day, seeing what’s going on in the community.”
Homelessness has continued to be a dilemma in her precinct.
“For my office, one of our functions is evictions, and so we deal with that everywhere when you’re talking about evictions,” Hammond stated.
The constable mentioned that there may be cases of residents not paying rent, or who cannot afford rent, or fail to qualify for aid programs.
“And in a sense, that may place them homeless,” she said.
She shared that it was one of the hardest things her department does. However, she said she is not fulfilling one of her duties if she does not act.
“But I tell my staff, my deputies; it does not mean we can’t show empathy, so we still do that in getting the job done,” she added.
Hammond also spoke about the diversity within county elections.
“It was not always this diverse, but it is growing. Things are happening for everybody,” she said. “For myself, I am the second female in the history of Dallas County constables.”
She is the first woman in Precinct 2.
“And so, that is a type of first where people can see, or even our young people can see, that you are able to do this. And I think that’s what’s big about the diversity is: people from all walks see where they can be and what they can do,” she stated.
“It’s just showing that we all can work together.”