Five municipal judges out after Austin City Council vote

6:54 p.m Thursday, March 8, 2018 Local
Jay Janner
Austin municipal judges often handle magistration, or the first court hearings for people arrested for a crime. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Five municipal judges will not be returning to the bench after the Austin City Council voted Thursday to not reappoint them, following the recommendation of a panel that conducted the city’s first performance review of sitting judges.

While the panel didn’t provide specific reasons for not keeping the five judges in question, panel member Emily Gerrick said these judges broadly showed patterns of belittling defendants, jailing them for speaking during hearings and refusing to grant bail requests from certain attorneys because of personal reasons.

The recommendation drew a fiery response from one of the judges in question.

“I’m unfit?” Beverly Landers, a substitute magistrate for 21 years, asked council members Thursday. “That is an insult to your predecessors. It is an insult to me. It is an insult to our citizens.”

The other judges who were not reappointed to the bench are Judge Erik Cary, who worked an overnight magistrate shift at the Travis County Jail, and substitute Judges F. Witcher McCullough, Olivia Ruiz and Celeste Villarreal.

The council’s vote Thursday was 8-0, with Council Members Ann Kitchen, Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Ellen Troxclair abstaining.

Municipal judges most often try cases involving traffic tickets. However, they often serve shifts as magistrate judges, approving probable cause affidavits that allow law enforcement agencies to press charges against an individual. They may also set bail.

A panel of nine attorneys conducted the review last month of each of the city’s 22 judges and looked at applications, performance reviews and comments made on sitting judges. They recommended reappointing 17 and hiring one new judge, leaving four vacancies at the court.

Austin attorney Amber Vazquez, one of the panel members, said that this was by far the most thorough process she had seen in reviewing municipal judges.

“This process was a watershed moment for how we do things,” Vazquez said. “For the first time, we were given a broad view of everyone that was on the bench and everyone that wanted to be on the bench.”

Villarreal has faced some backlash since she authorized the release of a teen accused of threatening to “shoot and blow up” Akins High School on $15,000 bail with no conditions for monitoring. In 2016, Villarreal authorized the release of a man accused of stalking on a public recognizance bond; he then attempted to hunt down and kill his ex-girlfriend but killed himself when he did not find her in her home.

The city has created panels in the past to review those applying to be municipal judges. However, this was the first time it ever reviewed the performance of sitting judges.

Even so, several council members were concerned that the judges did not have a chance to respond to the review.

“I do think this is a better process,” Kitchen said. “My difficulty is I am just not comfortable with a process … where allegations that individuals were performing in a certain way were made and they did not have the opportunity to respond to that.”

Update: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria’s name.