Two years in, Hays County JP seeks reelection against court clerk

11:29 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 Local
Stephen Spillman
Hays County justices of the peace work out of the Hays County Government Center. STEPHEN SPILLMAN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When Hays County Justice of the Peace Maggie Hernandez Moreno had her daughter baptized, she thought it would be safe to silence her phone for the short few minutes while she walked to the front of the church for the ritual.

It wasn’t. She missed a call for a death inquest.

“I underestimated how much that becomes a part of your life, because you’re on call 24/7,” Moreno said of the calls to attend to a death, which come at least once a week. “You can never say ‘Oh, they won’t call now.’”

She has learned that lesson and others over the past two years, since Moreno won what had been her mother’s JP seat in Precinct 1, Place 2 for 12 years. Now she’s fighting to keep it again, against Democratic primary challenger, Lisa Hernandez DeLeon, who works for the office’s other judge.

No Republican is running for the seat, so whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to preside for the next four years.

“I love my job,” Moreno said. “Running for office, when I announced in 2015, was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

BACKGROUND: Hays County JP runoff candidates compete on experience, community ties

The job has duties ranging from certifying circumstances when someone dies to hearing minor misdemeanor court cases. Though the position works closely with law enforcement and involves court duties, it requires neither a peace officer license nor a law degree in small counties such as Hays.

Moreno’s mother, Margie Hernandez, died in April 2015, and her caseload was transferred to the other San Marcos-based JP. So when Moreno won the seat, she inherited an office that had been inactive for more than a year.

Her opponent, DeLeon, has been working for the past six years as the court clerk to the district’s other JP, in Precinct 1, Place 1.

“I said, OK, this is the next step for me,” said DeLeon, a San Marcos native. “This is what I’ve been planning for, working for… It’s just intriguing to me, the whole field, the court system, the interaction with law enforcement and the DA’s office.”

Moreno, also from San Marcos, said the position has let her see the issues of her community in a new light, from learning what’s going on in the school system through the truancy cases she hears, to getting a sense of the affordable housing crisis from the evictions she’s forced to uphold.

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The two women work in the same small office, so they see each other daily, in addition to running into each other at campaign events. DeLeon said she’d like to see more coordination between the two JPs who work in the office and fewer office closures during the day. Moreno said she’s lengthened hours on Wednesdays, to 6 p.m. to provide after-work availability.

DeLeon described herself as more experienced, having worked in a JP’s office longer. But Moreno said actually being the JP gave her the upper hand in experience.

“I’m doing the job,” Moreno said. “I came in and established a court that had been dormant.”