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Victoria County narrows search for judge appointment

By BY MELISSA CROWE - MCROWE@VICAD.COM
Feb. 19, 2013 at 7:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 19, 2013 at 8:20 p.m.


County Court at Law No. 1 Applicants

• *Constance Filley Johnson - Attorney, appointed municipal court judge

• Allison E. Marek - Assistant district attorney

• Johna Marie Stallings - Assistant district attorney

• *Joyce M. Heller - Attorney

• *Eddie Wilkinson - Assistant district attorney

• **M.P. "Dexter" Eaves - Attorney, former Victoria County criminal district attorney

• *Travis H. Ernst - Attorney

• David Benning Smith - Attorney

• Robert B. Whitaker - Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace

• *Lidia Serrata - Attorney

• Arnold Hayden - Attorney, former Victoria County assistant district attorney

• Alex Luna - Attorney

• Amanda Bedgood Pierce - Attorney, bar association president

• Leslie A. Werner - Attorney

*top five applicants

**withdrew application

Source: Victoria County Administrative Services

OTHER ACTION

• Received annual audit for the Victoria County Juvenile Probation Department.

• Ratified application for county road crossing in Precinct 1 for the methane gas sale between the city of Victoria and Ineos.

• Approved equitable sharing agreement and certification for the Victoria County District Attorney's Office.

The appointment for County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge is down to the final five candidates.

However, if Victoria County Commissioners don't act soon, the judge's seat could sit empty after the current judge, Laura Weiser, leaves office Feb. 28.

The issue was originally set for a closed meeting Tuesday but was openly discussed at the insistence of District Attorney Stephen Tyler and several commissioners.

"Do it in the open, and then no one has any concerns about who was selected and how they were selected," Tyler said.

A five-person committee, appointed Jan. 22 by County Judge Don Pozzi, ranked the candidates after interviewing all 13 applicants and recommended its top three.

Pozzi said his preference was to see one recommendation and vote on that person.

However, commissioners voted 3-2 to interview the top five - Travis Ernst, Joyce Heller, Constance Filley-Johnson, Lidia Serrata and Eddie Wilkinson. They will meet with commissioners Monday for another round of interviews.

It's possible commissioners will name the new judge then.

Commissioners Gary Burns and Danny Garcia voted against the measure.

Burns, who made a push at the start of the meeting to keep the discussion open, said his perception was never that there would be a single recommendation. In addition to interviewing the top three, he wanted to review all resumes and interview any others the court agreed upon.

Commissioner Kevin Janak said it should be open to the top five, rather than the top three with handpicked applicants.

"If we start handpicking individuals, there will be favorites," he said.

Burns said he wants to be well-informed before voting on any candidate.

"The perception was that this committee had pre-picked who they wanted," Burns said. "I don't think that's the case."

The committee included Attorney Kevin Cullen, Administrative Services Director Joyce Dean, County Court-at-Law No. 2 Judge Daniel Gilliam, Commissioner Clint Ives and retired Judge Pat Kelly.

Pozzi said he specifically included three attorneys, two with judge experience, because no county commissioner is expected to know what type of individual to look for for in hiring or appointing a judge.

Janak agreed.

"I worked cows for 30 years, and now I have to pick out a county court-at-law judge," he said. "I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not."

Dean said of all the interviewees, the committee felt strongly about three.

Ives said the process was a difficult task. His top pick was Wilkerson, who had a strong background in juvenile issues.

"He offered a phenomenal interview," Ives said. "He displayed judicial characteristics that I feel would benefit the county."

Ives said his preference does not discount the other two.

"We're splitting hairs between the three when it comes to qualifications," Ives said.

Elections Administrator George Matthews said in an email the commissioners court is responsible for appointing a replacement in the case of a vacancy, because the county court is created under the statutory authority of the legislature.

The Texas Government Code actually lists when the court is created, but the case law has confirmed that the appointment process is also when a vacancy occurs, Matthews said. There is no provision for conducting an election.

He added, in the case of school district trustees, the board may appoint a successor or may hold an election to fill a vacant position, but only school districts get that choice, not counties.

A city does not have the choice of appointment, only conducting an election to fill a vacancy, hence the special election for the District 3 position on the city council, he said.

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