Handling traffic citations, eviction or debt collection cases might not sound like the sexiest job on the ballot this March, but both Democratic Precinct 3 justice of the peace candidates said the job offers a unique chance to help residents.
“Most people overlook JP court,” said Sylvia Holmes, associate director at the University of Texas’ Legal Services for Students. “But that’s the court most people actually go to.”
Holmes is running against incumbent Susan Steeg in the Democratic primary March 6. The winner will face Republican Martin Harry in November for the seat that presides over the southwestern portion of the county.
For Justice of the Peace Susan Steeg, who has served in that position since 2007, seeking re-election means continuing some of the prominent programs she’s established over the years. Steeg, 64, launched a nationally recognized truancy prevention program in partnership with the Austin and Lake Travis school districts as well as the Travis County Correctional Center and the Schools of Social Work at UT and Texas State University.
“Truancy is a symptom of a deeper issue,” Steeg said. The program, which follows up with students through home and school visits, is led by a licensed master social worker. The program also offers internships to social work students.
“Education is the key to success, so we keep expanding and finding ways we can help. It’s something that we’ve grown over the years to help our local schools,” she said.
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Steeg said she’s also proud of having eliminated backlogs in the civil and criminal docket, as well as leading the courts to implement cloud-based case-management software: “Back in 2007 (when she took office), all JP courts were 25 years behind in technology. I advocated to jump-start the courts into the 21st century. It was a major undertaking, but innovation was needed to make the courtrooms efficient and electronic.”
If re-elected, Steeg wants to continue to advocate for improved transportation access to the court.
People who can’t afford to pay fines are required, Steeg said, to have an in-person interview to determine if fees should be waived or a payment plan set up. However, before 2010, there was no bus route that led to the court, which sits on the same campus as a WIC Clinic and a health center. Steeg helped advocate for the bus stop. But now, it’s in danger of being eliminated as bus services are increasing in the city’s core and, she said, decreasing in other parts of Austin such as the Oak Hill area, where the court’s campus sits.
“We now need some sort of voucher system to work with ride-share companies,” she said. “I want to keep improving on the services we give to people.”
For Holmes, 36, who has more than 10 years of experience in small claims and misdemeanor criminal law, seeking office means the chance to help a larger population of residents. At UT, her office provides free legal advice to students and provides consultations on many of the legal issues that land in justice of the peace courts, such as car wrecks, employment law or landlord and tenant issues. She said in her campaign website that she’s spent most of her career “helping young people correct mistakes, learn lessons, and move forward to bright futures.”
If elected, Holmes said she wants to provide online options for traffic dismissals. “It’s time to update the website and stop hiding dismissals,” she said. “Right now the website steers you to pay for the ticket.”
She also hopes to create an evening court docket for uncontested tickets. “Busy families in Southwest Austin deserve efficiency,” she said on her campaign website.
Holmes said she wants to make routine court procedures easier with extended hours, translations in multiple languages and online forms. Making sure that court employees have just-cause labor protections against things like unfair terminations is also important to Holmes.
“Going to court can be scary,” she said. “I went to law school to learn all this.” That’s why she said that, if elected, she’d hear the stories of people in the courtroom and help guide people to fully understand their situations and options.
About the candidates
• Sylvia Holmes, 36, is associate director of Legal Services for Students at the University of Texas. She earned her bachelor’s in business administration from UT and her law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law. She has more than 10 years of small claims and misdemeanor criminal law experience.
Civic participation: Member of Junior League of Austin, former Mobile Loaves & Fishes volunteer, Sustainable Food Center volunteer, Member of Rotary Club of Austin and co-coordinator of the Austin’s Women’s March.
• Susan Steeg, 64, has served as Precinct 3 justice of the peace since 2007. She earned her bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Texas. In 2004, she retired as general counsel of the Texas Health Department after serving more than 20 years in state government.
Civic participation: Past president and current member of Rotary Club of Austin-Southwest, former volunteer tutor at Foundation Communities and former volunteer attorney at Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas.
About the job
Justices of the peace handle both civil and criminal cases, including small claims court, justice court and administrative hearings, among other duties. These are lawsuits over debts, evictions, car accidents, unlawful towing, and property. They serve four-year terms and make $120,540.