The Democratic and Republican candidates for three seats on the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas did something Thursday evening that, in 2020, could strike many voters as odd.
They engaged in a cordial, thoughtful, informative discussion of their qualifications to the bench, their legal experience and their judicial philosophies. They didn’t insult, attack or interrupt one another. In fact, they frequently had nice things to say about their opponents.
The occasion was an hourlong virtual forum hosted by the Dallas Bar Association and moderated by Natalie Posgate, a staff writer for The Texas Lawbook who covers litigation and the courts.
“You have six very well qualified, experienced candidates – win, lose or draw,” said Democrat Bonnie Lee Goldstein, the judge of the 44th District Court in Dallas County, who is challenging incumbent Republican David Evans for Place 3 on the appellate court.
No one disagreed.
The tenor of the evening was set at the start when, at Posgate’s suggestion, the candidates took a moment to recognize the late Justice David Bridges, a respected 24-year veteran of the court who was killed this summer by a drunken driver.
Bridges was to be the incumbent candidate in Place 6, having run unopposed in the March 3 Republican primary. Rockwall attorney John Browning, a fellow Republican, was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to fill the late justice’s seat. Browning’s challenger is Democrat Craig Smith, judge of the 192nd District Court in Dallas County.
The third seat up for grabs is Place 8, where incumbent Republican Bill Whitehill is running against Democrat Dennise Garcia, judge of the 303rd District Court, one of Dallas County’s family courts.
The Fifth Court of Appeals, one of 14 such courts in Texas, hears civil and criminal appeals (except those in capital murder cases) from six North Texas counties: Collin, Dallas, Hunt, Grayson, Kaufman and Rockwall.
Garcia said her extensive family law background as a practitioner and, since 2004, as a judge sets her apart not just from Whitehill but from all the present members of the Fifth Court, “which is one of the busiest courts in Texas.”
Roughly half the appeals that reach the court are civil, she said, and roughly 20% of those involve issues of family law.
Whitehill disputed Garcia’s statistic, saying the 8% of all cases that reach the Fifth Court involve family law issues. He said his reelection would help bring stability and continuity to a court in need of both. Since his election in 2014, he said, he’s gone from the court’s most junior member to No. 2 in seniority.
Two years ago, a wave of Democratic victories — mirroring the party’s national triumphs in the midterm congressional elections — transformed the Fifth Court from unanimously Republican to overwhelmingly Democratic.
Despite that, Whitehill said, the split court remains “a collegial group. …We’ve been known to grab a beer together, which is great.”
Browning and Smith both touted their years of experience as trial lawyers, as well as their extensive writings on the law and the courts.
Browning was the 2020 recipient of the Texas Bar College’s Patrick A. Nester Outstanding Achievement in CLE Award. Smith co-wrote (with Tom Melsheimer, Dallas managing partner of Winston & Strawn LLP and Smith’s campaign treasurer) On the Jury Trial: Principles and Practices for Effective Advocacy, an acclaimed book published in 2017.
“The jury trial is sacrosanct to our justice system,” Browning said, adding that appellate justices must never “disregard what a jury has said” or substitute their judgment for that of a jury.
Smith said he thinks that already happens far too often. “Our appeals courts, frankly, don’t seem to trust the judgment of juries.”
Goldstein cited the breadth of her experience in court, both from the bench and facing it. Before her 2014 election to the district court, she served as an associate municipal court judge in Dallas, a municipal court judge in Cockrell Hill, Royse City and New Hope, as well as a city attorney and a city prosecutor.
None of the other candidates could match Evans for one act of service, albeit a medical one, not a legal one: Last year, he donated a kidney to a friend and colleague, Carolyn Wright, a retired chief justice of the Fifth Court.
Evans said party affiliation has nothing to do with the work of an appellate court. “We should be focusing on the substance of the case before us, not on ideological battles.”
He was elected to the Fifth Court in 2012, then, like his fellow GOP candidates, was swept under by the blue tide of 2018. He was appointed back onto the court last year by Abbott to succeed a justice who became a federal district judge.
“We don’t always agree,” he said of his fellow justices. “That was always true when it was Republican court, and it’s now true with both parties.”
Publisher’s Note: This coverage of the 2020 judicial elections by The Texas Lawbook is being made available outside our paywall courtesy of Thompson Coburn and Carter Arnett.