Tucker challenges Staudt in JP race
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Challenger Bronson Tucker is pitting his 14 years as a trainer of court personnel against Judge Edna Staudt’s 23 years as Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace in this year’s Republican Primary.
The winner will face unopposed Democrat Jonasu Wagstaff in the General Election.
Elected six times, Staudt believes that more than two decades of results speak volumes about the success of her court and those who work with her.
“I think things are rocking along really well,” she said. “I have a tremendous staff. I think who you hire is important, because whatever impact you want to make in the community, you have to hire people who share that vision. I hire people who share that vision, in addition to being well-trained and qualified.”
Serving as Justice of the Peace is not a simple job, but it can be guided by simple principles. For Staudt, it is simply a public service position.
“I see a way for this position to be of service to people,” she said. “If you’re going to have someone decide whether you’re going to pay your fine today and go to jail because you can’t pay it, or give you time to pay it or make some other alternate arrangements where you can do something creative, I think that means a lot to the public that I look at each person individually.”
That fairness and justice begins with listening.
“They expect me to provide justice for them when they come to court,” Staudt said. “They expect justice and they expect fairness. They expect an open door and somebody to listen. That’s what you want from your public servants. If you don’t allow people to speak, then they don’t have an opportunity to share what they want you to know. Before I make my decision I should hear what they have to say. Then you weigh that situation against the law and judge appropriately.”
When a judgment is made, Staudt said it is important to also provide resources and assistance to those in need, be it a truant student, an evicted tenant or someone coping with any other hardship.
“With the community in general, I have good relationships with all kinds of agencies,” she said. “This job requires resources and it is best if those resources are local. They shouldn’t have to go to Georgetown to get a class, so I have always struggled to get what they need here. If they didn’t have it, I’ve found an organization to try to put something together and provide it.”
Among the successes Staudt is most proud of are her mentoring and teen court programs.
“When I first saw kids coming through this courtroom years ago, they stood before the bench very depressed, feeling hopeless,” she said of the origins of her mentoring program. “They were in a situation that was making them unhappy. It could have been a divorce, could have been a death, or any number of things. They were acting out in a manner that put them in the courtroom, but I saw more. I wanted to help them get confidence to make it through their life and succeed. They needed someone to listen to them, somebody to let them know they were valuable.”
With nothing in place, she developed her own program, complete with a training manual and DVD and she works hard continually to recruit new mentors.
“I started recruiting at the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club, the churches and everywhere else and said I needed good sound people who are willing to mentor these kids,” she said.
Years later, she is still seeing success after hundreds of kids have gone through the program.
“Invariably, 90 percent of these kids make a turn,” she said. “They realize that number one, they have a life, they have value and life is worth living, and they have someone who is going to walk them through some of the hardest times in their life.”
The teen court program not only helps students who face court, but also creates a place for other kids to get involved in and learn about the judicial process.
“It is a leadership program and I have kids that come every month, twice a month, and I teach them the roles of the judiciary with the help of the YMCA and some attorneys in the area, law enforcement and judges,” she said of the program that is now more than two decades old. “If (student defendants) want to have their case dismissed, they can be a defendant in the teen court. They go and let the teen court set their sentence, they do whatever sentence the teen court assesses on them then they can get their case dismissed.”
Whether it is an increase in litigation, death inquests, or other responsibilities, Staudt said the growth in the community is the biggest challenge facing the court. One way she hopes the county will address the strain on all the justice of the peace courts is to eventually move to having a medical examiner.
“It is a very expensive project, but I do over 100 death inquests a year myself,” she said. “It is something we want to do well, and I don’t mind doing it, but sometimes the sheer numbers get away from you.”
Regardless of the workload, she remains focused on her core goal and hopes to continue for another term.
“I’m just always looking for something to meet the needs of the community as I see them,” Staudt said. “I believe I am doing a good job, and I hope they would see that and keep me here. I hope they know I care about this community and the people in it. That’s why I am here.”
Tucker has 14 years with Texas Justice Court Training Center as an attorney training court personnel across the state.
“What we do is we provide continuing legal education for justices of the peace, court personnel, and constables in their civil process duties,” he said. “In that time I’ve dedicated myself to learning everything there is to know about the justice of the peace court.”
He serves as director of curriculum at the center and was also appointed by the Texas Supreme Court to a task force that rewrote justice of the peace rules. He said that experience and perspective makes him uniquely qualified to step in as justice of the peace, adding that his ability to take on different roles is also key.
“I feel very comfortable taking a leadership role and very comfortable playing my part on a team,” Tucker said. “I would bring that to the office, and demonstrate leadership when things need to get accomplished, but also to work with other officials of the county to make sure we’re all pulling on the rope the same direction to get things accomplished.”
Defining his role as one of fact-finder and listener should he be elected, Tucker wants to make sure everyone who comes to the court feels fairly treated.
“My biggest priority – from the background I come from – is ensuring every person that comes into the court, whether they be a peace officer, a criminal defendant, whether they be a landlord or tenant, a collection firm or a defendant in one of those cases, every person that comes into the office is entitled to be treated fairly and equally and according to the law,” he said. “I want people to know that we are compassionate and we provide resources. We can follow the law and enforce the law, but we’re not going to close the door on people and make them go figure it out. We can refer them to agencies that can help them.”
He has campaigned on the premise that a drastically reduced criminal caseload – from 11,400 in 2012 to 1,130 in 2017 – signals a need for change.
“The criminal side of the court is really not functional, and the reason for that is that there are some agendas being followed rather than the law. That has resulted in law enforcement and prosecutors not really trusting the process,” Tucker claimed, adding that more cases being filed does not imply more guilty verdicts. “That doesn’t mean I’d be a rubber stamp either. It doesn’t mean if law enforcement or prosecutors filed a case they are going to win. They have a legal responsibility to prove the person guilty by a reasonable doubt.”
Being an attorney is also something Tucker said gives him an advantage as a justice of the peace.
“As the only attorney in the race, I would be able to issue warrants whenever there is probable cause that someone has committed an offense like DWI or intoxication manslaughter,” he said. “I can issue a warrant for that person’s blood to test it for alcohol content.”
Tucker has his own ideas for assistance programs as well, taking an idea from a friend in Oklahoma who created an organization called Start Helping Impacted Neighborhoods Everywhere (SHINE).
“It is a program available to help with kids, and also applicable when you have someone convicted of a criminal offense but they can’t afford to pay their fine and costs,” he said. “What we can do is provide community service projects that work on improving the community and so everyone wins that way. They have a sense of accomplishment, which improves their confidence and self esteem.
“Making sure a program is in place like SHINE, to provide resources and opportunities for kids to make sure we are keeping them on the right path is a huge part of what I want to do.”