- Elizabeth Findell American-Statesman Staff
A lawyer, a firefighter, a naval commander and an arms salesman walk into a Hays County justice of the peace race.
OK, the firefighter and commander are lawyers too, much to the chagrin of the arms salesman, who emphasizes that you don’t need a law degree to be a JP.
But it’s anyone’s game as Bill Davis, Robert Avera, John Burns and Jason Carter vie to replace retiring JP 4 Terry Kyle in the Dripping Springs area. No Democrats are running for the seat, so the winner of the Republican primary will likely run unopposed in November. The position has duties that range from presiding over misdemeanor court cases to certifying circumstances when there’s a death.
For Davis, 54, suing the county in 2016 is what started him thinking about running.
He filed suit over a speed-trap camera he maintains was installed and operated illegally, along with school zone signage, to improperly bilk locals out of money. The speed camera is gone now and the suit is ongoing. People who contested the fines wound up in the JP’s office.
With his background suing public agencies over constitutional issues, he’d have the wherewithal to challenge things like that, Davis said.
“I decided I was going to run and I was going to change a few things,” he said, starting with providing forms to make it easier for residents to challenge fines, if they want to.
A former engineer and Gulf Coast native, Davis attended the University of Texas for three degrees, starting in the early 1980s. He moved permanently to Hays County in 2001.
Avera, 42, grew up in the Austin area, helping run the family ranch in Dripping Springs as a teenager. He went to college in Colorado and spent seven years fighting forest fires in the Rocky Mountain West.
Eventually missing the ranch, he moved home, got a law degree and started a practice. He got involved with the local fire district, including pushing an initiative to partially shift the tax burden to sales taxes. As JP, he said, he’d be able to use his firefighting experience bringing calm to chaotic situations when death calls come at all hours, and his legal understanding would be an asset in the courtroom.
“People want their day in court, so it’s important to allow litigants time to tell their side of the story,” he said.
The JP’s office has a backlog of old cases, so Avera would like to begin dismissing those that are inactive.
Burns, 64, is a lawyer, former medical researcher and retired Navy commander, with both a Ph.D in medicine and a law degree. Raised in a military family, he lived in five states before he was 10. He moved to Hays County in 2013.
“I’m particularly interested in this as a way to help my community,” Burns said of the JP job. “The area is growing rapidly and the justice of the peace is going to become busier.”
His experience working in corporate law, he said, would help him improve efficiency at the office as its caseload increases.
Carter, 43, whose main campaign website photo shows him and his wife and young child holding rifles in front of an armed tank, is the owner of Underground Tactical Arms Co. He did not return phone calls or online messages to discuss the race.
On his website and in Facebook posts he calls himself a longtime small business owner and takes aim at his opponents for not being natives of Dripping Springs — and for being attorneys.
“We don’t need a lawyer, we need one of us,” his website says. “The JP’s office isn’t supposed to be controlled by the bar association. It’s supposed to be controlled by you.”
Court filings show Carter was arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2005 after a friend said he accused Carter of flirting with his sister, they fought and Carter pulled a gun on him. Carter argued in court filings that he’d been arrested without probable cause and moved to suppress all evidence taken from the scene.
He ultimately pleaded no contest to reduced charges of misdemeanor assault and received community service and deferred adjudication, avoiding a formal conviction.
Burns has spent $22,381 in the race, while Avera has spent $18,127, according to campaign finance reports. Both reported loaning themselves about $10,000. Davis has spent $1,390. Carter has not filed either his January or February campaign finance forms.