O penly LGBTQ Houston judges Beau Miller, Jason Cox, Jim Kovach, Shannon Baldwin, and Jerry Simoneaux all won their electoral races in 2018. And before the so-called “Fab Five” start campaigning for re-election this November, the group is being honored by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.
“After being in the pandemic for over a year, we are excited to be able to gather in-person to honor five distinguished judges from our community,” says Caucus President Jovon Tyler. “Each of them works tirelessly on behalf of all Houstonians to ensure fairness and justice within our city, and they do so as out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
During the Caucus’ Coming Out Summer Fling on June 5, the organization will present all five of the judges with the John Paul Barnich Justice Award, which was named for Houston’s first openly gay municipal judge. He died from a diabetes-related illness in 2009.
“I think, out of all the ways I’ve been recognized, this is the most memorable because I knew Judge Barnich,” says Judge Jerry Simoneaux of Harris County’s Probate Court No. 1. “He was a friend and a mentor of mine.”
Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 4 Judge Shannon Baldwin—who is the first openly LGBTQ African American judge in the county, and only the second in the state—agrees that the award is an honor. “[John Paul Barnich was] described as being thoughtful, compassionate, and having a friendly disposition,” she says. “He was also described as having an enormous capacity for empathy. I only hope to have those same traits. I try daily!”
“It’s especially meaningful when you consider the prior recipients of this award, such as Monica Roberts, Fran Watson, Ana Andrea Molina, and Judges Steven Kirkland and Daryl Moore, among others,” says Judge Jason Cox of Harris County’s Probate Court No. 3.
“Judge Barnich was the very first openly gay judge, and he was a trailblazer for us,” says Judge Jim Kovach, of Harris County Civil Court at Law No.2. “As the first openly gay Harris County Civil Court Judge elected by Harris County residents, it shows you how far we have come in terms of acceptance.”
“I’m tremendously grateful to Judge Barnich and the other trailblazers who made it possible to run and serve the people of Harris County as an out LGBTQ+ individual, and I’m proud to receive the award with colleagues who I admire greatly,” says Judge Beau Miller of the 190th Judicial District Court. Miller is a trailblazer in his own right, as the first openly HIV-positive elected official in Texas.
Campaigning for the November election has officially begun, and The Fab Five tell OutSmart that they are ready.
“I look forward to being re-elected so that I can finish the job and give Harris County the criminal-justice and bail-bond reform they deserve,” Judge Baldwin says. “I’ll campaign hard because nothing is promised, and I’ll humbly ask for the citizens’ vote again! I will welcome the opportunity to earn their support and their vote in 2022.” She would also like to decrease the ever-growing backlog of cases resulting from Harvey and COVID-19 in a second term. “Because of Harvey’s [flooding throughout downtown], the criminal courts were displaced for the past three-plus years. In the first two years of my term, we were moved three times! Just when we thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, COVID shut us down. (Well, not completely, but we were forced to severely limit cases.)”
“I’m excited to get back on the campaign trail and talk with the people of Harris County about their needs and concerns, and how we can continue to provide the best services we can,” says Judge Cox. He presides over a probate and mental-health court, and says the best part of his job is helping people suffering from mental illness and their families find solutions for their care. “It’s very often a team effort, with the courts, the Harris Center, the Harris County Attorney’s Office, and our [court-appointed] attorneys working together to achieve that goal,” he says.
As a lawyer with 30 years of experience, Judge Kovach loves his new job and is ready to run on his merits. “The best part is helping the parties to a case solve a problem and bring a resolution to the matters,” he says. “Litigation is stressful, and the parties need closure, so that is what I provide to them in a fair and impartial manner. As a prior activist for the LGBTQ+ community and other progressive causes, the worst part of the job is having to refrain from making any public comments, because it is inappropriate for judges to do so.” Regarding the changes he’s seen in the courts over 30 years, Kovach is enthusiastic. “When I started as a judge in 2019, the County civil courts were still passing paper folders between the clerk’s office and the judges. By eliminating the paper files, we have saved the county an enormous amount of money, including the
cost of several thousand square feet of file-room space.”
Judge Simoneaux says his team is going into high campaigning mode as well, and hopes his accomplishments in implementing new technology will keep him on the bench. “We were the first to hold remote video hearings—even before COVID, so we never had a backlog during the pandemic,” he notes.
Judge Miller’s civil court was the first in Harris County to hear a virtual bench trial, and the first to have tried an in-person jury trial during COVID-19. “Although we have all been challenged by the pandemic,” he says, “I do believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
What: Houston GLBT Political Caucus’ Coming Out Summer Fling
When: June 5, 7–9 p.m.
This article appears in the June 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.