SAN ANTONIO — The quality of judges in Bexar County is on the decline, and we can blame partisan sweeps at the polls.
Some of the county’s finest jurists from each party have fallen victim to these waves. The trend is unlikely to change soon.
A large number of judges are retiring at the end of the year, and we are troubled to see them go. Although more judicial candidates than ever are on the ballot, in too many cases, the caliber is lacking. High-quality candidates still seek the judicial positions but too often lack the legal experience and knowledge that one would expect in a judge.
This year most judicial incumbents are opposed, some have multiple members of their own political party challenging them. In the past, opposition to an incumbent was indicative of a troubled judge, but now that is not always the case.
Lawyers used to pay their dues and would seek a place on the bench at midpoint or later in their careers. They were known by the legal community. Once elected, they usually stayed as long as they wanted with mainly bad judges getting opposition at the polls.
Today, making a bid for a bench is akin to buying a lottery ticket. Lucky candidates ride a political wave to a new job with a steady paycheck and benefits.
We urge voters to do their homework before going to the polls. Research the candidates. We realize that can be a daunting task given the sheer number of candidates, but these jobs are too important to be taken lightly.
We offer our recommendations in Bexar judicial races:
Five of the 16 district court judges whose courts are on the ballots this year are retiring, which ensures that many new judges will be on the bench next year.
Here are our recommendations for the three contested district court seats in the Republican primary.
In the 45th District Court, Stephani Walsh, 58, a former registered nurse with 28 years of experience as a lawyer is the right choice. She is board certified in family law, which is important because family law makes up the bulk of the case load in the civil court.
The seat is being vacated by retiring Judge Barbara Nellermoe.
In the 144th District Court, we recommend Lorina Rummel, 46, who has 21 years of legal experience as a private attorney and prosecutor. She is a felony prosecutor assigned to the Family Violence and Victim Protection Unit. At one time she worked in the court of Angus McGinty, the judge she is now challenging.
McGinty, a former prosecutor who was in private practice before being elected in 2010, has the dubious distinction of being the first Bexar County judge to have two prosecutors from his own party file against him. McGinty lacks the judicial temperament and work ethic necessary for the job and should be replaced.
In the 227th District Court, we recommend Kevin O’Connell, 51. He has served as a prosecutor for 23 years, spending the past three years as liaison to the San Antonio Police Department homicide office working and advising investigators from the time crimes are committed until they are ready to be presented to a grand jury. He is former chief of the Bexar County DWI Task Force.
The seat is being vacated by retiring Judge Phil Kazen.
Five contested district court races are on the Democratic ballot.
In the 45th District Court, we recommend Laura Flores Macom, 49. She has 16 years of civil law experience in a variety of areas. Her background includes product liability, medical malpractice, insurance defense and family law.
In the 150th District Court, we recommend Paul Canales, 63, who served as judge of County Court No. 2 for 22 years before losing his bench in 2010. He has 38 years of legal experience, including a short stint as a prosecutor at the beginning of his career. Canales has been active during the last three years, serving as a visiting judge.
The seat is being left open with the retirement of Judge Janet Littlejohn.
In the 186th District Court, we recommend Mary Green, 59, who has spent her 27 years in law as a Bexar County prosecutor. In 1996, she began focusing on the prosecution of violent prison gang members, which resulted in the county getting a federal grant that allowed Green to receive dual designation as a special assistant U.S. attorney. Her work resulted in the prosecution of several members of the Texas Mexican Mafia.
The bench is being left open by the retirement of Judge Tessa Herr.
In the 187th District Court, we recommend Stephanie Boyd, 46. She has 16 years of experience in felony criminal courts. Boyd has taken appointments off the child abuse and neglect docket and worked extensively with defendants whose cases have been assigned to the county’s felony drug court.
The bench is held by Judge Raymond Angelini, who is retiring.
In the 224th District Court, we recommend Michele Petty, 53, who has been a member of the State Bar for 29 years and is certified in civil trial law. She has a varied background in civil litigation, handles family law matters and does pro bono mediation work.
This bench is held by Republican Judge Cathy Stryker, who is seeking re-election.
Republican voters face seven contested county court-at-law campaigns and two probate court races in the primary.
In County Court-at-law No. 1, we recommend incumbent John Fleming to be nominated for a second term to the bench that also serves as the county’s drug court. Fleming is a former prosecutor with 13 years of legal experience.
In County Court No. 9, Walden Shelton, 52, has earned the nomination for a second term. He has almost 15 years of legal experience. During his tenure, Shelton has encouraged defendants to continue their education by probating their fine or community service if they enroll in GED classes. This is a court that handles primarily criminal cases, but he voluntarily assists with civil cases.
In County Court No. 10, we recommend Kim Pettit, 58, for the open civil bench. He has 33 years of legal experience, primarily in civil law, and also handles mediations. He has innovative ideas on moving the docket that could be put to good use.
This bench was left open by the resignation of Judge Irene Rios, who vacated the seat to make a bid for the 4th Court of Appeals.
In County Court No. 11, the clear choice is Julie Wright, 45, a felony prosecutor with the district attorney’s office with 20 years of legal experience. She has extensive trial experience and is vastly more prepared for the job than her opponent.
This bench is currently held by Carlo Key, who switched political parties during the summer and will appear on the general election ballot as a Democrat.
In County Court No. 13, we recommend Crystal Chandler, 41, an appellate lawyer with the district attorney’s office with 16 years of legal experience. Although she has spent the last six years doing appeals, she spent her first eight years with the district attorney’s office as a trial prosecutor. Chandler is co-founder and former board member of Chapter 61 Ministries, a nonprofit organization engaged in the fight against human trafficking.
For County Court No. 14, we recommend Susan Skinner, 55, whose diverse career includes jobs in child protective service work and as Bexar County probation officer. Skinner has 21 years of legal experience, 15 of them as a prosecutor and the last six in private practice.
This is an open seat being vacated by Judge Bill White.
For County Court No. 15, we recommend Allison Lanty, 49. She has 23 years of experience as a lawyer board certified in criminal law. She served 17 years as a prosecutor in Orange and Seguin.
A San Antonio resident, she has a criminal defense practice based out of New Braunfels.
This bench is currently held by Democrat Michael LaHood, who is seeking re-election.
In Probate Court No. 1, we recommend Patricia Rouse Vargas.
Board-certified in estate planning and probate law, Vargas, 36, has been practicing law for 12 years with a concentration in probate, estate planning, trusts and guardianships.
Judge Polly Jackson Spencer is retiring and vacating the post.
For Probate Court No. 2, it is with great reservations that we recommend Tom Rickhoff, 69, due to his work ethic and the way he runs his court. Two election cycles ago, without consulting the other probate judge, he decided to step away from the mental court docket in “an effort to reduce angst and conflict.”
Regrettably, his only challenger, Philip Ross, has had a limited probate law practice and is unqualified for the job.
There is only one contested county court-at-law race and a probate court contest in the Democratic primary.
For the County Court No. 10, we recommend Tina Torres, 46, who was appointed in December to fill Rios’ unexpired term. Torres has 17 years’ experience handling the type of civil cases heard by this court. She has made a seamless transition from private practice and was presiding over her first jury trial in the first few weeks on the bench.
For Probate Court No. 1, we recommend Barbara “Barbie” Scharf-Zeldes.
Scharf-Zeldes, 45, is in private practice and primarily provides legal services for San Antonio police officers and firefighters. She has 20 years of experience in probate matters and has worked as a mediator.