Three days after the election and with nearly all the votes counted, the four judicial races in Houston’s First and Fourteenth Court of Appeals are in a photo finish that seems to reflect that two Republican incumbent justices and two Democratic challengers are on the verge of winning.
Like Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the fate of all eight candidates is still pending as they enter the weekend.
Sitting Republican justices Tracy Christopher and Ken Wise of the Fourteenth Court are leading their opponents by about 1% of the votes cast. Democratic challengers Amparo Monique Guerra and Veronia Rivas-Molloy are leading the First Court of Appeals incumbent justices — though Guerra’s lead is by only one-third of 1%.
Given the closeness of the races, the outcomes for two of the judgeships could still change once outstanding mail-in, provisional and military ballots are all counted. The margins in the other two are likely too wide to make a difference.
All four prevailing candidates are currently leading their opponents by margins that are under 1.5%. But when examining the actual number of votes, the differences now range from about 31,000 to as close as about 1,300 votes.
According to sources, the candidates are currently waiting on roughly 26,000 outstanding mail-in, military and provisional ballots to come into the 10 counties in Texas that are determining the fates of the Fourteenth Court and First Court races. County officials will likely be occupied all next week tallying up those outstanding ballots.
14th Court of Appeals
|Chief Justice||Tracy Elizabeth Christopher||Republican||1,154,268||50.09%
|Place 7||Ken Wise||Republican||1,161,724||50.50%|
|Tamika "Tami" Craft||Democrat||1,138,803||-22,921||49.5%|
Per Texas election law, candidates may even have to wait until early December to get an absolute final count for their races. Counties have until the 14th day after Election Day — which falls on Nov. 17 this year — to finalize their local canvassing, the process in which election officials ensure all certified and valid votes are cast. Then the State of Texas will have its own canvassing process, which will be finalized between Nov. 21 and Dec. 7. In litigation terms, the state’s canvass is like obtaining the official trial record after trying a case.
According to the Texas Secretary of State’s website, the official authority on Texas election outcomes, all 254 counties and all 6,162 polling locations across the state have reported their numbers. The Secretary of State says it last implemented an update to its database Thursday evening at 10:14 p.m.
The Texas Lawbook independently compiled vote totals across all 10 counties that encompass the First and Fourteenth Courts’ jurisdiction — Harris, Fort Bend, Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Galveston, Grimes, Waller and Washington.
While the exact numbers of votes garnered for each candidate slightly differ between the two sources, the percentages remain the same. Here’s what we are currently certain about for each race:
Chief Justice, Fourteenth Court of Appeals
Justice Tracy Christopher currently leads opponent Jane Robinson by at least 4,300 votes. Percentage-wise, Christopher has 50.09% of the vote and Robinson has 49.9% of the vote.
Christopher, who currently sits in Place 9 of the Fourteenth Court, told The Lawbook she believes she will prevail.
“I have a slim lead and I believe that I will hold the lead at the end of the vote-counting,” Christopher said Friday morning.
Robinson, who also spoke with The Lawbook Friday morning, said it was too early to tell what will happen.
“Every vote needs to be counted,” said Robinson, an appellate partner at Houston litigation boutique Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing. “I have no idea how many remain to be counted — the process is ongoing. I respect that process.”
Robinson said it is also too early to entertain the possibility of a recount.
“I have not given that thought one way or another,” she said. “It’s not in my nature at this point … it would be premature to even consider.”
Place 7, Fourteenth Court of Appeals
Incumbent Ken Wise currently leads his opponent, Tamika “Tami” Craft, by what is now approaching 23,000 votes. Wise holds 50.5% of the vote, while Craft holds 49.5%.
Wise said he doesn’t believe the pending votes will be “enough to change the outcome.”
“I won as comfortably as you can call ‘comfortable’ in the appellate court races this year,” Wise told The Lawbook Wednesday evening. “I have a comfortable margin and I’m grateful to my supporters and grateful to be able to continue to serve.”
Compared to his fellow Republican candidates, Wise has fared the best in Harris County — an overwhelmingly Democratic county. According to Harris County’s election site, Craft received more than 740,000 votes. Wise attributed that to his longstanding service as a judge on both the appellate trial benches of Harris County as well as notoriety he may have garnered from his Texas History podcast, “Wise About Texas.”
“I was born and raised here (Houston),” Wise said. “I’ve been on the ballot a lot. I’ve served in the judiciary for 17 years and I think that has helped people know me. My passion is Texas history and I have done a lot of speaking on my podcast. I think that helps people understand that I care a lot about what I’m doing, and I love it. It’s really a calling.
“Otherwise, I wouldn’t subject my career to the judgment of strangers every six years,” Wise added.
Throughout the election season, The Texas Lawbook has been unable to reach Craft. The email address listed on her campaign website always bounces, and multiple attempts to contact Craft’s campaign through her website and Facebook page have been unsuccessful.
Place 5, First Court of Appeals
The biggest cliffhanger by far in the Houston appellate courts is currently the race between Justice Terry Adams and Amparo Monique Guerra, a labor and employment partner at Shackleford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton. The winner has ping-ponged multiple times between the two candidates, the margins as slim as the millisecond differences between horses racing in the Kentucky Derby. Guerra currently prevails with a narrow lead of more than 1,300 votes, which is less than one-third of 1% of a margin.
1st Court of Appeals
|Amparo Monique Guerra||Democrat||1,151,232||50.03%|
Guerra currently has 50.03% of the vote, while Adams has 49.97% of the vote.
“All I can say is we are ahead as of now,” Guerra said in an email to The Texas Lawbook Wednesday evening.
After Election Night, Adams said he went to bed at 6 a.m. thinking he had prevailed, only to wake up three hours later Wednesday morning to emails and text messages indicating he was behind.
“I just want to see where the numbers end up and see where we stand at that point and then go from there,” Adams told The Lawbook by phone early Friday afternoon. “I don’t want to speculate … It’s been a roller coaster but it’s fine. It’s all going to work out and I’m just thankful for everything we’ve seen so far. The most prudent thing for us to do is sit tight, say a lot of prayers and see how the numbers turn out.”
Place 3, First Court of Appeals
Republican Russell Lloyd and Democrat Veronica Rivas-Molloy currently have the least close race on the appellate bench. Rivas-Molloy, a labor and employment attorney at Jones Walker, currently leads her incumbent opponent by more than 31,500 votes, a 1.38% margin.
Neither could be reached this week for comment.
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.