The incumbent is Republican David Junkin, who was appointed judge by Governor Greg Abbott following the court’s creation by the Texas Legislature in 2019. The challenger is Democrat Sherri Tibbe, who served as Hays County District Attorney from 2007-2014.
Candidates hoping to be elected judge of the 453rd District Court stressed their court experience and commitment to clearing the backlog of cases during a Hays County League of Women Voters webinar Sept. 24.
In opening statements, both stressed their experience, especially in civil and family law, which constitutes the majority of Hay County court cases.
“My background is almost entirely in civil and family law,” Junkin said, mentioning his time working in Houston and Austin before opening his own practice in Wimberley in 2002. However, he added, “I was blessed to be able to do an extremely wide variety of cases.”
Tibbe stressed her background which included a specialty in civil forfeiture and time as a domestic violence prosecutor in Travis County. “I have practiced law for the last 20 years in Travis and Hays counties,” she said. As DA, she said she was in the courtroom every day and has argued in all the county’s district courts.
Concerning plans to address backlog, Junkin said that, despite the pandemic, during his first 18 months in office (he has served 22), he was able to resolve “more than 1,500 civil and family law cases” and also handled the 20 percent of criminal cases assigned to each of the county’s district courts. He said during the time district courts were shut down due to COVID-19, “I was the only district judge who continued to hold regular dockets using video conference technology.”
Tibbe said she also participated in the court processes during the pandemic and would assign a high priority to criminal defendants incarcerated in Hays County Jail while awaiting trial. “The highest priority for me is to get those people to trial, to get them the justice they desire.”
Tibbe predicted it could take “several months to a year” to work through the system and alleviate the backlog.
When asked what measures they would take, if any, to assure all defendants receive adequate legal representation, Tibbe noted that judges “have to take an active role” in making sure attorneys, particularly court-appointed ones, “are consistent in making contact with their clients and advising them as the case proceeds through the system.” Too often, she said, defendants have trouble getting ahold of their court-appointed attorneys. “There are people in jail that have no idea what’s going on with their cases. District judges need to pay attention to these attorneys to make sure they are doing their jobs.”
Junkin, who said he’d assisted in the development of the county’s indigent defense coordinator position, noted that judges “can do research” and “pull up reports” that allows them “to watch over each case and see what’s happening with the assigned counsel system.”
When questioned about what in their background has prepared them to handle the wide variety of cases that come before the court, Junkin again pointed to his past experience with civil and family law, which he said accounts for two-thirds of the cases that come to district court. “I think we’re doing a very good job,” he said. “We don’t ignore those civil cases, we move them along.”
Likewise, Tibbe referenced her time as a child protection service caseworker as well as her “vast experience” in criminal law, noting that the vast majority of Hays County cases that go to trial are criminal. “I know how to move cases through the system,” she said. “When I left office as DA there was no backlog of county inmates awaiting trial. I would work very hard to move cases.”
Regarding how they would define other pressing issues, both candidates mentioned specialty courts and how mental health issues impact the system. “Lots of individuals in the criminal justice system have mental health issues,” Tibbe said.
Junkin noted that the county already has a drug court. “I would make use of existing courts to address those issues,” he said, assigning a high priority to both civil and criminal cases.
In closing statements, Junkin said he is “uniquely qualified to help take care of the backlot of cases in Hays County.” He said it would be a denial of justice to ignore family law cases.
Tibbe said, if elected, she promises “every single case will receive my full and undivided attention … I understand the urgency when you hurt or lost money, you need justice.”