Of these, 60 are for various county criminal, civil, and family courts; four are for appellate court benches;and four are for justices of the peace. Most of the incumbents are Democrats, who are facing deep bipartisan criticism from both citizens and elected leaders.
“I think our electorate is a lot more educated this year; more educated than I’ve ever seen,” District Criminal Court Judge Martiza Antu told The Texan. “I think the public wants accountability from these elected positions, which is something that I haven’t seen before.”
Appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to the newly created 482nd Criminal District Court last year, Antu is the only Republican judge in Harris County presiding over a criminal court. Most incumbent judges on the ballot this year are Democrats swept into office during the 2018 “blue wave.”
Following that election, which also led to a narrow victory for county Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county has seen a marked increase in pretrial suspects released on bail, a rise in the number of cases dismissed for lack of probable cause, and minimal progress on a backlog of about 135,000 criminal cases.
The criminal case backlog has been building since courts were brought to a standstill during Hurricane Harvey flooding in 2017 and then again by the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. Even after courts were authorized to conduct hearings via the internet, some judges were slow to resume holding trials.
While reliable year-to-date crime data will not be available until late next year, the county saw significant increases in crime beginning in 2019. According to data from the medical examiner’s office, there were 720 homicides in the county last year, marking a 65 percent increase from 2018.
An increasing number of high-profile crimes have been associated with suspects out on bail, and Crime Stoppers of Houston victim’s advocate Andy Kahan reports that there have been at least 182 victims allegedly murdered by suspects out on multiple felony or personal recognizance (PR) bonds since 2018.
It is not only Republicans though who have criticized judges and county leaders over management of these issues. District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, first expressed concern over the details of a federal consent decree governing most misdemeanor bail in 2019, and since then she has repeatedly criticized the practice of releasing repeat violent offenders.
State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) has also been a vocal public critic of bail practices in the county, saying that PR bonds are not appropriate for repeat offenders.
“Those folks will go out and re-offend and that’s what’s leading to the large number of murders,” Whitmire said in a FOX 26 interview.
At a National Day of Remembrance event for murder victims in September, Crime Stoppers of Houston said they could no longer read aloud the victims’ names from the previous year because the list had become too long. Family members at the event often shouted “vote them out” in regard to criminal court judges who were releasing violent suspects on bond.
Many victims’ family members have joined forces with new political action committee (PAC) Stop Houston Murders in support of Republican candidates for judicial offices in the county. The group has raised $2.4 million since last summer and has placed both television and radio ads.
Among those appearing in advertisements for Stop Houston Murders PAC is the sister of 71-year-old Martha Medina, who was allegedly murdered by a suspect released on bond for capital murder by Democratic Judge Hilary Unger. Unger faces an electoral challenge from former chief felony prosecutor Julian Ramirez.
Incumbent Democratic Judges Natalia Cornelio, Josh Hill, Chris Morton, and DaSean Jones have all been publicly criticized for releasing violent suspects. Former gubernatorial candidate Allen West called for them to be impeached.
Jones, a self-avowed socialist, made news for releasing murder suspect David Cruz in 2020, and in another case awarded nine bonds to a suspect who would later lead police on a deadly chase. As first reported by The Texan, Jones also reduced bond for murder suspect Eric Semiens to $9,000 in February 2022.
In other examples, judges and magistrates have been authorizing bond release for felons in possession of a weapon as often as 30 to 40 times a month. Last month, a magistrate appointed by a committee of incumbent judges gave suspect John Fomba a PR bond for illegal possession of a machine gun even though he was already out on six bonds from three different counties.
While these higher-profile cases usually involve felony suspects, even some misdemeanor court judges have drawn scrutiny. Earlier this year, the district attorney’s office launched proceedings to remove Criminal Court at Law Judge Franklin Bynum, citing his instructions to the sheriff’s office not to collect DNA samples as well as his frequent dismissal of domestic and family violence cases.
In 2020, 16 Harris County misdemeanor court judges joined the NAACP in a lawsuit seeking to block Abbott’s emergency order prohibiting the release of any suspects accused of crimes involving violence or the threat of violence or with prior convictions involving violence.
Former Judge Jessica Padilla, who is running this year for one of the misdemeanor courts, told The Texan she wanted to help ensure the system would work fairly for both victims and suspects. Padilla added that misdemeanor courts need to help those who commit crimes that “make us angry versus those that make us scared” by identifying offenders who do not harm others or property and would benefit from treatment programs or other assistance.
A few of the incumbent judges, including Bynum, lost to primary opponents earlier this year. Several who have been frequently in the news due to lenient bail practices are facing tough re-election battles.
In 2020, Judge Morton of the 230th District Court upheld a $500 bond for a suspect charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon who had prior convictions for assaulting a family member, robbery, credit abuse, delivery of a controlled substance, and failing to appear for court. After release, the suspect assaulted his ex-girlfriend and her mother, but it took an appeal from the district attorney to the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals to over-rule Morton’s decision, issue a warrant, and set bond at $100,000.
Morton, who faces a challenge from former Judge Brad Hart, has defended his practices, telling the Houston Chronicle, “How much money does a person have to have before the public is safe? There is no answer to that because money does not make people safe.”
Antu, who touts experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney — and has had even Democrats on the commissioners court lauding her court for a clearance rate of 120 percent — is facing a Democratic challenger in Veronica Nelson, who has also served as a prosecutor.
Despite controversies, the Harris County Democratic Party is standing by all party judicial candidates. Local Republicans have created the Harris County Republican Party Joint Judicial Campaign PAC, and have partnered with the state GOP to provide mailers on behalf of judicial candidates.
Law enforcement groups such as the Harris County Deputies Organization endorsed only Republican judicial candidates this year, while the Houston Police Officers Union endorsed mostly Republicans along with a few Democratic incumbents.
April Aguirre, the aunt of nine-year-old Arlene Alverez shot to death in Houston last year, has appeared in an advertisement for Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer for county judge. She told The Texan she is supporting all the Republican candidates for the criminal courts.
“I’ve historically voted Democrat because we in the Hispanic community were told Republicans were evil and bad, but now my eyes have been opened to which of these politicians are doing things that are helping our community.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Chris Morton was judge of the 203rd District Court. We regret the error.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.