by Anita Miller
Expanded reliance on specialty courts and an increasing use of technology were touted by both candidates hoping to be elected judge of Hays County Court-at-Law #3 during their webinar forum Sept. 24 sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Incumbent Judge Tacie Zelhart, a Republican who was appointed to the bench in 2019, said in an opening statement that in her short service, she has made the court “more efficient, transparent and accountable.” She said she “found her calling” while serving as a chief prosecutor in Harris County “advising for individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities.” She noted that her “strong desire to help others” in part led to establishing a Hays County mental health specialty court during her first year on the bench.
Millie Thompson, the Democratic challenger, said that for the past 10 years she has been “representing Texans in every type of case” handled by the court-at-law, including probate, guardianship, personal injury and misdemeanors.
“If you deem to elect me, the court will have procedures that are fundamentally fair and constitutional regardless of how a person looks, how much money they have in the bank and their personal politics.”
When questioned about whether they believe court personnel needed “implicit bias” training, Zelhart said she supports all kind of training including implicit biases. “We all need to be welcoming to everyone who comes to court. I’m always willing to learn and to change procedures and will do that as judge.”
Thompson said implicit bias training is essential for anyone elected to office. “Systemic racism and classism permeates our criminal justice system.” She said everyone “needs to take a deep breath and examine where we come from and how our own world experiences affect our worldview,” as well as how those things affect the worldview of others. “It’s essential that everyone has the training,” she said.
When asked about Zoom and other video conferencing tools and their place in court, Thompson said she’s actually been using Zoom in her work as an attorney procedures such as taking depositions. “I think attorneys have legitimate concerns” about the technology being used in jury trials” where due process concerns are “essential to make sure jurors are paying attention.” It’s also essential, she said, that “all parties can hear and see each other … I support it but it should be used appropriately,” Thompson said.
Zelhart agreed, saying Zoom is especially useful in probate and guardianship cases where individuals “may be elderly or incapacitated,” in both “contested and non-contested matters … I would not force any party to use Zoom if they did not agree with it.
Regarding changes they would recommend in specialty courts, Zelhart again noted her role in establishing the mental health court and that she has also helped preside over the county’s veterans court. She said the county also needs a DWI court, drug court and family violence court. ”I have witnessed as an attorney and a judge how rewarding it can be to get people the help they need.” In furthering that end, she said she would “use any technology available.”
Zelhart said specialty courts for DWI, drug and family violence courts would reduce recidivism. “I’ve witnessed that as an attorney and as a judge.
Thompson noted that because of backlog, people are sitting in jail and during any downtime in County Court-at-Law duties she would volunteer her time to help the district courts.
When the topic turned to what they would do to reduce unnecessary incarceration, especially among individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues, Thompson noted that there are many tools available to judges but not all have good outcomes. Any judge can act as a magistrate and release someone on a Personal Recognizance bond, “but the question is where do you release them to, where do you get them help? We have an infrastructure problem. The appropriate place might be a mental health facility but there are no beds. We need to make sure there is a place for them to go.
Zelhart pointed to the county’s work in pre-trial services and the magistration division, where mental health concerns are often first identified. “We have a long way to go, but we are getting there,” she said.
In closing, Zelhart said she works every day to uphold justice, to be “a judge that is a fair judge, who is impartial and follows the law. I believe my past experience makes me the ideal choice to continue to lead County Court-at-Law #3. I will always work to improve our criminal justice system. I care about Hays County, I care about our courts and I care about the people I serve. I respectfully ask for your vote as a constant and steady leader in our legal community.
Thompson reiterated that she is the only person in the race who is a civil rights attorney. “I would make sure every procedure is fair and constitutional to every person who comes to court,” she said.
Moderator was Charles Minnear, and questions were submitted by members of the public.