Travis County Judge Nancy Hohengarten is facing her first contested election since 14 years ago, when she took the bench in Court-at-Law No. 5.
Her opponents in the Democratic primary say a change is needed in the court’s leadership, pointing to decisions Hohengarten made in trials last year that rankled some members of the defense bar.
But while challengers McKinley Melancon and Mario Flores have raised a combined $21,696 in contributions since July, Hohengarten has raised $81,689 — with a healthy amount coming from defense lawyers. Among those backing her candidacy are seven Democratic groups along with Austin lawmakers U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson.
Hohengarten says support for her re-election proves that a few incidents in her courtroom over the past year are being blown out of proportion by her foes.
“I have a tremendous amount of support from the defense bar,” Hohengarten said.
Some of the criticism goes back to a June Facebook post in which Hohengarten said she had been presiding over a trial and that one of the lawyers had “tortured” her. It was a joke, she later clarified through her attorney. The Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association considered a letter of reprimand,but it was voted down 64-61.
Hohengarten had a separate spat with defense lawyer Adam Reposa, resulting in Reposa going to jail for contempt for causing her to call a mistrial by being disrespectful to her in front of a jury. Reposa fired back with a complaint against Hohengarten alleging that she had unfairly restricted his questions to prospective jurors. A grand jury declined to charge Hohengarten with official oppression in that case.
“Through the course of any judge’s tenure there may be people who are unhappy with a ruling that you make,” Hohengarten said. “That’s part of being a judge.”
Flores said Hohengarten restricted Reposa unnecessarily. Melancon agrees.
“I don’t think she handled Adam’s case properly,” said Melancon, a friend and work associate of Reposa’s. “I think it could have been handled a lot differently.”
But so far neither challenger has drawn supporters away from Hohengarten.
Melancon, a 34-year-old Texan who has practiced law in Austin for about four years, has drummed up $16,671 since July, with most of it coming from family members. Flores, a 42-year-old former city planner who practices several areas of law, reported $5,025 and has no endorsements.
“I’m missing out on sponsorships from people I thought I’d get,” Flores said.
County Court-at-Law judges preside over misdemeanor criminal cases, such as drunken driving, drug possession and some assaults. They serve four-year terms and make $158,000 a year.
All three candidates say that if they are elected they will look out for vulnerable defendants. Flores, a Latino, said he can relate to challenges faced by immigrants who are accused of crimes. Currently, Carlos Barrera is the only nonwhite judge among the seven judges on the criminal side of county courts.
Melancon said she’d like to create an easier path to personal bonds to reduce the number of defendants who plead guilty to an offense just to get out of jail.
Hohengarten wants to lower the standard needed to qualify for a county-funded attorney, bringing it from 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline to as high as 150 percent. She said she’s witnessed defendants who did not qualify for a county-funded attorney refuse to go to trial over finances.
NANCY HOHENGARTEN, 56, has presided over misdemeanor criminal cases as the judge of County Court-at-Law No. 5 since 2004. She previously was an Austin criminal defense attorney and before that a felony prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. She earned her law degree from the University of Houston.
Civic participation: Board chair of the Sobering Center of Austin/Travis County. Past chair of the Behavioral Health Advisory Committee.
MCKINLEY MELANCON, 34, has been a criminal defense lawyer in Austin since 2013. She earned a bachelor’s in history from the University of Texas and a law degree from South Texas College of Law Houston.
Civic participation: Democratic Socialists of America member.
MARIO FLORES, 42, has been an Austin lawyer since 2010 and practices several areas of law, including immigration. He earned a bachelor’s in urban studies from Cornell, a master’s degree in city and regional planning from UT, and a law degree from Texas Tech. Flores previously worked in city planning in Austin and Dallas.
Civic participation: Chairman for the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber and a member of the American Cancer Society, the Young Hispanic Professional Association of Austin and the Knights of Columbus.
ABOUT THE JOB
County Court-at-Law judges preside over misdemeanor criminal cases for offenses such as drunken driving, drug possession and some assaults. They serve four-year terms and make $158,000 a year.