By David Wilfong, NDG Contributing Writer
Judges races continued to be the focus of Monday Night Politics presented by the Dallas Examiner at the African American Museum at Fair Park on Jan. 29. Once again the exchanges got a little heated, but by the end of the evening more civil competitions made their way into the spotlight.
The first race featured on Monday night was for judge of the family court in Judicial District 255 where Sandre Moncriffe is challenging incumbent Kim Cooks. Moncriffe says temperament, provision of services such as interpreters and clear violations of conflict-of-interest are reasons for a change in the 255th.
“Judge Cooks has presided over her ex-law partner’s divorce, where he represented himself,” Moncriffe said. “That was a serious conflict of interest in which Judge Cooks should have recused herself. Judge Cooks has also presided over cases involving her personal attorney who represented her in her own child custody matters. Those are issues that should have been disclosed o the parties in the case, and they should not have to pay their attorney’s fees to ask Judge Cooks to recuse herself from cases.”
Cooks minced few words in her rebuttal.
“To begin with, I never had a law partner,” Cooks said. “You can look my law office up on the Secretary of State (website), it is the office of Kim A. Cooks and I’ve never had a law partner so I don’t know where she’s pulling this up from; out of the air. Second, it was disclosed that the attorney represented me, and the person said they wanted to go ahead and go forward. So, once it’s disclosed they can file a recusal, and if the recusal goes through it goes through, if not then it does not go through.”
The second judgeship presented at the forum was Judicial District 265 where incumbent Jennifer Bennett faced her challenger Myra McIntosh.
“I’m running to promote justice in the 265th Judicial District Court,” said McIntosh, who then passed papers into the audience challenging Bennett’s payment of court-appointed attorneys for services such as visitation, phone calls or writing letters and other communications.
“In this particular court, the 265th, there are rules that have been implemented where defense attorneys are not being paid to visit their clients in jail. They’re not being paid to make phone calls or letters to their clients, to subpoena their clients. And I’m going to ask you, how does that promote justice? That’s what I’m running for, I’m promoting justice for the defendant.”
As in the earlier case, the allegations were met with a sharp reply.
Bennett noted the paperwork being passed around were rules implemented by another in 2009, before she was even in office.
“I have attorneys in this room that I have paid for jail visits,” Bennett said. “I just paid an $11,000 bill. In fact, I’ve paid out over a million dollars in indigent defense last year, more than any other felony district court. What she is saying is false and just not true, and I’ll pass around that this came from the county. It is not my ruling.”
The third race featured at Monday Night Politics was the race for Judicial District 283 with both Lela D. Mays and Vonciel Jones Hill. There is no incumbent in this race, and the competition took a much more civil tone, with one candidate even giving the other a “you got this” pat on the back when she momentarily lost her train of thought.
Hill comes to the table with 25 years of experience as a public servant, both as a municipal judge and later as a member of the Dallas City Council. Lela D. Mays is a criminal court magistrate with 18 years under her belt, and she is particularly proud of her work with a drug court, citing that 75-80 percent of people she has seen convicted in felony cases have some kind of drug or mental illness issue.
Mays also said she believes her experience is more qualified for the office at hand than Hill’s.
“There is no comparison to the experience of a magistrate dealing with fines only, versus a magistrate dealing with people going to the penitentiary,” Mays said.
“I’m extremely grateful for Lela Mays articulating part of what I did as a municipal judge,” Hill responded in her closing remarks. “You see the part of our jurisdiction that she left out was the Class B misdemeanors.”
While Hill concedes that her earlier cases were heard on a different jurisdictional level, many of the same type of offenses were heard, and she believes her experience will translate into the new court well.
The final race was between Tina Yoo Clinton and Monique Ward for Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 1.
Ward said she has seen clients as a defense attorney who did nothing more than being with friends who were shoplifting, and end up with a felony on their record. She said she wants to see more diversionary programs to avoid such lifelong marks, and wants to see more treatment for drug or mental health issues.
“Those individuals that need to go to prison, of course, need to go,” Ward said. “But those individuals that we can help save, we should try to save those individuals.”
Clinton, who ran unopposed in 2014, says that such measures are already being implemented by others, and that her time is focused on the area she is best at.
“The reason I don’t have a diversionary court is because my colleagues are doing an excellent job,” Clinton said, later adding, “There has to be a division of labor, even among the judges, in order for Dallas County to get all the benefits, and so I’ve taken on the division of labor on behalf of the judges regarding policy.”
When an audience member noted the increased civility between the candidates in the final segment, Clinton brought some chuckles from the crowd with the response, “We actually like each other.”
Monday Night Politics continues on Feb. 5 and runs through March 5. The event is free and open to the public.