District judge candidates go on the attack in heated campaign

Sonny Long

May 25, 2012 at 12:25 a.m.
Updated May 26, 2012 at 12:26 a.m.

Underneath the stately robes of the Victoria district judicial candidates might very well be boxing trunks.

The candidates for the Republican nomination are duking it out with a partisan and personal tone, hurling accusations of unethical campaigning and of being a closet Democrat.

Candidate Jack Marr claims fellow attorney Chuck Cole is a lifelong Democrat who switched parties only to run for the seat in the 24th judicial district. The pair are vying to replace retiring Judge Pat Kelly, a Democrat.

"He's never voted as a Republican - ever. It raises questions about political philosophy," Marr said. "Why run as a Republican when it's contrary to your political philosophy? Are you being honest with the voters?"

Cole counter-punched.

"As far as the allegation that I am not a Republican, that is totally false," Cole said. "This is the first time I have run for political office, and I am running as a Republican. I would put my conservative values up against Jack Marr's any day."

"It is true over the years I have supported conservative Democrats such as John Sharp and Ken Armbrister. I also supported the current judge who serves as a Democrat. He is Jack Marr's former law partner, and I have no doubt Jack supported his candidacy as a Democrat also."

Kelly, the current 24th Judicial District judge who was first appointed to the bench in July 1993, was Marr's law partner "20 years ago," Marr said. "I don't think he was ever opposed after he was appointed."

"Would I have voted for an unopposed Democratic district judge? Marr said. "I might have."

"There is an important difference between voting for a Democratic candidate in a local race and continually supporting the Democratic Party with financial contributions and voting in the Democratic primary and then changing to Republican," Marr said.

Pots and pans

Marr also says Cole is being deceptive to the public about his courtroom experience that Marr called "actually very limited."

"This race is about qualifications. He claims to have done all these jury trials, but jury trials aren't where the litigation is going on. It's in front of the bench," Marr said.

Marr also reacted to a Cole campaign postcard that equates Marr's experience as a divorce lawyer to dividing up pots and pans.

The Cole campaign material reads in part, "We need a District Judge with broad legal experience and someone who shares our values - not a divorce attorney whose only legal experience is dividing up families and their belongings."

Marr blasted Cole for minimalizing family law.

"He relegates family law to pots and pans. That's undermining its importance," Marr said. "I doubt that people who are going through a divorce feel that way. That is an indication of how little he knows about what actually goes on in a courtroom."

Cole said he has tried to run a positive campaign, "even in the face of negative attacks." He contended Marr attacked him from the outset for his experience.

"He claimed he has a 'full range of trial experience.' The truth is that for 17 years I have handled more than 1,000 cases." Cole said. "The truth is that Jack Marr is a divorce lawyer and has been for many years. Much of his legal career has been spent arguing over household goods."

Complaint filed

The heated campaign also has led the Texas Democratic Party to file a complaint against Victoria County Justice of the Peace Robert Whitaker for appearing in a campaign television ad for Marr.

Whitaker, also a Republican, appears in the commercial with Marr.

The complaint and investigation request, filed Wednesday by Bill Brannon, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, refers to a commercial in which Whitaker appears as a judge in a dramatization and Marr is making arguments before the "acting" judge.

The complaint cites the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 5(2) that states, "A judge or judicial candidate shall not authorize the public use of his or her name endorsing another candidate for any public office, except that either may indicate support for a political party."

Rebecca Acuna, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, said it was not unusual to file a complaint in the opposition party's race.

"Everyone is expected to abide by the same code of conduct," Acuna said. "It's also less likely that someone from the same party would file."

Back and forth

"I don't believe I've done anything inappropriate at all," Whitaker said. "I don't say anything. I am not identified in any way, not by name, not by title. It would be different if I came out and said, 'Justice of the Peace Robert Whitaker endorses Jack Marr.' I didn't do that. I play the role of a judge. I'm not doing anything that would lead anyone to think I have endorsed Jack Marr."

Marr agreed.

"I'm not aware of any violation. I didn't know there was a complaint until you told me," Marr said. "It's strange that it came from the Democratic Party. I had one comment after it ran on TV, and that was from Chuck Cole."

Whitaker said Cole also brought the commercial to his attention, coming to the JP's office last week.

"He handed me a copy of the Code of Judicial Conduct and said he was 'coming after me.' It seems a little unusual that the complaint would come from the Democratic Party."

Marr said that neither Whitaker's name nor the name of his court was displayed in any way, and Whitaker did not speak during the commercial.

"This is not a violation to me," Marr said. "I'm comfortable with it."

The complaint filed states, "In the Victoria area where this is shown, Robert Whitaker is well-known, and he is clearly recognizable in this ad."

Cole says he questions Marr's judgment in using a sitting judge in a partisan campaign commercial.

"In my opinion it shows a disregard for the requirement that judges avoid even the appearance of improper conduct," Cole said. "When the ad came out, I made that opinion known to Judge Whitaker and to Marr. Marr made the decision to run the commercial."

Determining whether rules have been violated will be the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, an independent Texas state agency created in 1965.

The commission is responsible for investigating allegations of judicial misconduct and for disciplining judges.

Telephone calls to the commission were not returned Friday.

The winner of the Republican primary election on Tuesday will face Democratic candidate Sandra McKenzie, also an attorney, in the November general election. She is unopposed in the Democratic primary.



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