Selection Process for Dallas’ Municipal Judges: Fair and Transparent

The courts in the City of Dallas do not function well. People who receive tickets regularly ignore them, the technology in the courts is antiquated or non-existent, police officers serving as witnesses regularly do not show up, and cases are repeatedly reset, resulting in dismissal. This has created a system that rewards people who ignore city tickets, whether they’re for code violations or traffic citations. That’s unfair to people who pay their tickets as well as to residents who have to live in neighborhoods where absentee landlords let homes deteriorate into drug houses with impunity, where violators stack junk vehicles on their lawns with no repercussions, and where our roads are less safe because speeders rejoice at our lax system. This must change.

A year ago, city staff embarked on an in-depth review of our court system, which included looking at best practices in other Texas cities. They discovered concrete ways to improve our court system, and recommended those best practices to the council judicial committee, and earlier this month to the full city council. The recommendations do not lay the blame for the problems in our courts solely at the feet of the judges; technology improvements, process changes, and other enhancements were recommended as well. But the fact is, many of the recommendations will have to be made by the judges themselves, and that means finding judges who are willing to work to implement changes.

Every two years, the council selects municipal judges. The mayor appointed me and Councilmember Delia Jasso as co-chairs of the judicial committee. He also appointed Councilmembers Vonciel Hill, Linda Koop, Sheffie Kadane, and Jerry Allen to the committee. Earlier this month, for three days over the course of two weeks, we interviewed 22 candidates for 11 full-time judicial positions, and then deliberated on our recommendations to the full council.

Prior to interviewing the judicial candidates, we sent them staff’s recommendations for court improvements. During our first day of interviews, many candidates talked at length about the proposed changes, explaining why some were good ideas and others were not. The conversations were informative and very helpful, but with a limited amount of time, we were unable to address each of the recommendations with each judge. So we sent out a list of thirteen recommendations and asked for comment from all the candidates.

When the committee reviewed the candidate’s responses to staff’s proposals, we weren’t looking for yes-men and -women, nor were we seeking candidates who would help line the city coffers . We were looking for thoughtful, fair responses, even if that meant explaining why the proposed recommendation would not work, or a description of another option might better address the underlying issue. We received some excellent, thoughtful responses.

In addition, the committee reviewed the following information for each candidate:

  • Employment application
  • Attached resume and other materials
  • Ranking in order of preference from the Judicial Nominating Commission, a body appointed by the council to interview judicial candidates and make recommendations to our committee

For the candidates currently serving as full- or part-time judges, we also reviewed the following:

  • The score (on a scale of 1-5) given by the sitting Administrative Judge
  • The average score given to each judge by prosecutors
  • The average score given to each judge by defense attorneys via Dallas’ Defense Bar Association
  • Anonymized excerpted comments on each judge from prosecutors
  • Anonymized excerpted comments on each judge from defense attorneys

As the committee deliberated, we discussed putting together a team of judges that could work well together in implementing changes to our courts, communicate well with the administrative side of the court system, and work well with the Administrative Judge. Our final recommended slate of judges included 4 of the currently sitting judges and 7 new judges, as well as a new Administrative Judge (head judge).

Last Wednesday, the full council voted on our recommended slate of judges. While the council approved 10 of 11 of our committee’s recommendations, as well as our recommendation for Administrative Judge, the debate was very destructive at times. Statements were made that the process by which judges were selected was unfair and racially biased. Having co-chaired the judicial committee, I want to set the record straight.

First, on the issue of race:  Our committee was color-blind in selecting the candidates we believed would be the best judges.  The resulting recommended slate was as racially diverse as the last group of judges:  one Asian-American judge, two Black judges, three Hispanic judges, and five White judges.

Of the six current judges who were not recommended by the committee, three were White, one was Hispanic, and two were Black.

Given the diversity of both those who were selected as well as those who were not, it is difficult to argue that our recommendation was racially biased.

Furthermore, any implication that our committee selected judges based on their conviction rate, fines levied, revenue collected, or any other metric relating to revenue generation, is completely false.  The committee didn’t request that information, we weren’t provided with that information, and it played no part in our deliberations or recommendations.

As to the more general question of the fairness of this process, some councilmembers complained that they were not notified about the committee meetings and blamed that for their absence. The truth is that this process was completely transparent and open to every councilmember. All councilmembers were notified of the meetings ahead of time and invited to attend.

The chart below shows the attendance of our committee meetings.  Please note that two councilmembers who were not members of the committee attended some of the meetings. (Non-committee members are shown in gray.)

Mayor’s Ad Hoc Judicial Committee Attendance
District Councilmember August 1 August 8 August 10
1 Delia Jasso (Co-Chair)
14 Angela Hunt (Co-Chair)
5 Vonciel Jones Hill
9 Sheffie Kadane
10 Jerry Allen
11 Linda Koop
2 Pauline Medrano
3 Scott Griggs
4 Dwaine Caraway
6 Monica Alonzo
7 Carolyn Davis
8 Tennell Atkins
12 Sandy Greyson
13 Ann Margolin

If there is a way to improve the process by which our city selects judges, I welcome that conversation.  We can always do a better job.  But the fact is, this was a thoughtful, deliberative, exceedingly transparent process, and it led us to recommend a slate of the most qualified candidates to our municipal courts.