As the primary appellate court for both civil and criminal cases for 24 counties in Central Texas, the Third Court of Appeals is a big deal in our state’s judiciary — and a tough race to run.
The good news is we have two strong Democrats on the court: Chief Justice J. Woodfin “Woodie” Jones and Justice Diane Henson.” The bad news is the rest of the court is comprised of four extremely conservative Republicans.
Justice Henson is running for re-election to the Third Court against Republican Scott Field. Other Democrats running for the Third Court are: Assistant District Attorney Bryan Case is challenging an incumbent Republican, as are Karen Watkins and Judge Andy Hathcock.
Judicial races sometimes fly under the radar during election seasons, but electing thoughtful progressives is imperative. Justice Henson, who worked in the same section of the Department of Justice as Eric Holder when she was prosecuting corrupt politicians (before coming to Austin in 1983 to join Graves Dougherty), has 25 years of experience and kudos from fellow lawyers and judges. Taking a quick break from the parade-and-festival circuit, she checked in with us.
QUESTION: Remind voters why re-electing a Democrat to the Third Court of Appeals is so important.
HENSON: Right now we have six judges, four of whom are Tea-Party extreme conservatives. Judge Jones and myself are the only Democrats. We need to start tipping the balance back the other direction. You can’t get to the middle if everyone is on the far right, which the Republicans are now. Judge Jones and I are more to the middle, and pragmatic always works better than extremes. …We have a lot of people on appellate courts without much trial experience. I came onto the court with 25 years of trial experience, both civil and criminal, and we need judges with more trial experience. By the way, I was proud to be on panel ordering DNA testing for Michael Morton.
QUESTION: What are your priorities for this campaign? Do you have a theme you’re running on?
HENSON: I have a record now, so I’m running on that. In a Bar poll of lawyers in the 24 counties, I was voted No. 1. That’s an assessment by the lawyers who appear before the court and who care that I get re-elected. You don’t throw out good judges just because they have a “D” after their names. I’ve been working hard and want to keep working. I helped clear a backlog of cases from the docket in my first year. And I’ve gotten support from a variety of groups, from lawyers to law enforcement to the Texas Farm Bureau.
QUESTION: The Third Court represents 24 counties. That’s huge. Do you campaign differently in different counties?
HENSON: It’s the size of Maine, close to the size of three Congressional districts, and the counties are very diverse. There are three media markets you absolutely have to buy in, so every dollar is precious. Comal County is very Republican and in the San Antonio media market, so it’s expensive, but we have to buy there. And there’s San Angelo.
Austin is where half the votes are. There’s no other county in the Third Court with an organized party structure like Travis County, where we’re consistently electing Democrats. If Travis County doesn’t come through, we’re dead; but if we don’t work on the margins, we’re dead, too. The Austin market also includes Temple and Killeen in Bell County, which I’m actually optimistic about. Bell County is military, and they tend to vote Republican, but I think for the younger officers and enlisted personnel, we’re going to get a much better vote for President Obama because he’s done well by them. We don’t have to win all outlying counties; we just have to shave the margins.
QUESTION: How different is this campaign from your first Third Court campaign in 2006? Are you doing things differently?
HENSON: I’m pretty organized, so I know what’s coming up. From the first day I could start raising money, I had a campaign kickoff. I’m more in tune to that process, so I started early and took care of business. As an incumbent, I have a wider net in terms of reaching out to people to see if they’ll support me. In the rural counties, campaigning one-on-one, you can get votes by going to the festivals and parades because they remember you. These are tough elections, but you just have to work really hard and hope it pans out.
QUESTION: Why do you think we don’t have more Democrats running for the higher courts?
HENSON: It’s the same problem we have in the State Party. We need a minor-league system to get you to the major leagues. We don’t elect many Democratic judges, except in Travis County. A sitting Travis County district judge would be the logical choice to run, but you can’t get many of those people because they’re happy doing what they’re doing. Republicans have more people to pick from — and when there’s an opening, the Governor puts in one of his men and then they have the advantage of incumbency. It’s really tough out there.