In a remarkable reversal of longtime Republican dominance, all 85 Harris County judicial seats will be occupied by Democrats beginning in January.
Harris County’s November 6 blue wave brought with it five openly LGBTQ judges-elect: Beau Miller in District Court 190, James Kovach in County Civil Court 2, Shannon Baldwin in County Criminal Court 4, Jerry Simoneaux in Probate Court 1, and Jason Cox in Probate Court 3.
Simoneaux, who ran unsuccessfully for judge in 2014, called it “a historic lavender judicial sweep.”
“Voters overwhelmingly rejected politics of hate and division, much of it directed at the LGBTQ community, and elected a record number of LGBTQ judicial candidates,” Simoneaux said. “A new day is dawning in our community, and we are bringing in the light of equality, inclusion, equity, and compassion for all of us.”
The five openly LGBTQ judges-elect will join three out jurists already serving on the bench in Harris County: Kelli Johnson in District Court 178, Daryl Moore in District Court 333, and Steven Kirkland in District Court 334.
Under Republican control, the 15 family courts in Harris County had been considered “hazardous” for transgender people seeking gender-marker changes, as well as for same-sex couples in cases involving adoption, child custody, life insurance, estates, and other matters. Until now, Houston attorneys representing LGBTQ plaintiffs have frequently filed cases in Bexar, Dallas, or Travis counties, where judges are more LGBTQ-friendly.
The change is also expected to be felt in criminal cases—including when gay men are arrested for consensual sexual activity in adult bookstores or other venues. Out criminal defense attorney John Nechman said that Harris County’s GOP judges have sometimes handed down harsher sentences for gay defendants in those cases than for heterosexual men convicted of domestic violence.
Mike Webb, president of the the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, expects there will be “more cultural competence around issues affecting LGBTQ individuals in Harris County.” Webb also expects an increase in LGBTQ judicial staff members.
Kovach, who defeated a Republican candidate tied to anti-LGBTQ hate groups, said he has practiced as an attorney in front of GOP judges for the vast majority of his 27-year career.
“This change is long overdue,” Kovach said. “Harris County voters sent a clear message that their courtrooms and judges should reflect the diversity of our city. This is a great win, because now pro se litigants in this court will no longer be intimidated because they can’t afford a lawyer. Everyone’s voice will be heard. And, of significant importance to me and the LGBTQ community, we will no longer be denied access to marry in our courthouse.”
The move away from Republican control began in 2014, when Democrats captured 13 percent of Harris County’s judicial seats. In 2016, that number increased to 32 percent. Harris County, the nation’s third-largest, includes 61 district courts, four probate courts, four county civil courts, and 16 county criminal courts.
Miller, who also defeated an anti-LGBTQ opponent, will become the state’s first openly HIV-positive elected official.
“I hope I don’t see you in my courtroom, but if I do, I promise you a fair hearing,” Miller said. “All communities, including LGBTQ people, will be treated with respect and fairness. I’m grateful to all of those who helped us win; it will be an honor to serve.”
The majority of the Democratic judicial candidates in Harris County were endorsed by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. In addition to the judicial sweep, Democrats captured a majority on the Harris County Commissioners Court, paving the way for progressive policies that include nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ employees.
Democrat Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina immigrant, will chair the Commissioners Court after defeating Republican County judge Ed Emmett. Although Emmett was considered an LGBTQ ally, the Caucus endorsed Hidalgo. And former sheriff Adrian Garcia, who ushered in pro-LGBTQ reforms when he served as Harris County sheriff, defeated GOP incumbent Jack Morman for the Precinct 2 seat on the Commissioners Court.
Webb noted that the 2018 midterms marked the last election in which Texas will allow straight-party voting.Last month, 76 percent of Harris County voters cast straight-party ballots—42 percent for Democrats, and 34 percent for Republicans.
The end of straight-ticket voting, mandated by the Texas Legislature, is sure to have a major impact on down-ballot races.
Webb fears it may discourage some people from voting if they feel they don’t know enough about the candidates on the ballot. On the flip side, the end of straight-ticket voting could make the Caucus’ candidate-endorsement card even more influential.
Jack Valinski, a longtime Caucus board member, said thanks to the community’s hard work, Harris County will now have judges who treat LGBTQ people more equally. “But we cannot stop now,” Valinski added. “We always have to vote, or our victories will be lost.”
This article appears in the December 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.