[This is the fourth in our series of articles looking at important seats and offices that will be on the March primary ballot for Democrats.]
When he’s not running (and winning his age division) in Austin’s myriad distance races, Judge Jon Wisser, 64, is likely to be performing weddings.
He started tying knots in 1975, when he began his judicial career as a justice of the peace in Travis County, and he kept presiding over weddings long after he moved up to county judge and then, for 24 years, judge of the District 299 Criminal Court.
Judge Wisser stepped down from the 299th in 2006, but he stays busy as a “senior active judge” — technically retired from the bench but not really. (We talked during a courtroom break.)
When the March primary arrives, lots of judicial seats will be up for grabs, including Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2, which is currently held by Republican Barbara Bembry — the last Republican-held seat in Travis County.
Primary voters may see the list of names on the ballot for judges and JPs in March and glaze over. Judge Wilford Flowers guided us through a lesson in electing judges. This week Judge Wisser gives us a primer on JPs.
QUESTION: Justices of the Peace are partisan seats in Texas, so tell us why it matters if a Republican or a Democrat is elected?
WISSER: It should not make a bit of difference, though there are stereotypes. You might say that a Republican would be more sympathetic to corporations in an eviction case, while a Democrat might be more sympathetic to the people.
QUESTION: What exactly does a Justice of the Peace do?
WISSER: Very few JPs in Texas are lawyers, but Travis may be the only county where all the JPs are lawyers. When I was first elected in 1975, I also served as the county coroner. I had 132 bodies in the last six months of my term. In rural areas the JP may still serve as coroner, but in Travis County and metropolitan areas, we have medical examiners.
The JP court is generally the first link in the judicial system and handles Class C misdemeanors involving fines but not jail time. They’re not very serious, but they are very numerous. The JP court gets cases involving traffic offenses, public intoxication, disorderly conduct, truancy, evictions. In Texas, the JP courts are also small claims courts that handle a vast array of civil cases about everything you can imagine.
QUESTION: Why are JP seats important?
WISSER: Because chances are if the public comes in contact with the judicial system, it will be with a JP. You see a whole array of things that are vital to a functioning society. People can’t always afford lawyers, so they might represent themselves, and you have to explain what you’re doing, lead them by the hand. The immediacy and the emotion of these cases can cause friction, so you need good people for JP.
QUESTION: You said that when you first ran for JP, it was a contested election and “an interesting experience.” How so?
WISSER: It was similar to my stint in Vietnam. It was a miserable, horrible election, but when it was over I looked back on it with some pride. I ran against a woman lawyer and a Baptist minister. I’ll just say that one contested election is all anyone needs. If you win the primary in Travis County, you pretty much win the election, and you can order your black robe.
QUESTION: You became known as the “wedding judge.” Why did you continue to perform weddings long after your JP days?
WISSER: As a criminal court judge, you are mostly inflicting horrible things on people – sending them to prison and maybe even death row. Not a whole lot of people are happy with what you’re doing. If all you do is that stuff, eventually you’ll have a cynical, negative view of life in general. Doing weddings — and I’ve done more than 7,000 of them — gives you balance. It’s a good feeling, and people thank you. It’s also a huge political benefit.
QUESTION: You are also known as “the running judge,” which has nothing to do with elections. Are you still pounding the pavement and trails?
WISSER: I’m still running, and I still win some races. I ran three half-marathons in the last two months. After you’ve sent 10,000 people to prison, a lot of people are chasing you!