Court-at-law judge candidates seek GOP nomination

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Feb. 6, 2014 at 8:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 6, 2014 at 8:07 p.m.

Last March, Victoria County commissioners interviewed 13 applicants for the unexpired term of county court-at-law 1 judge.

Travis Ernst made the cut, but this March, the decision will be in the voters' hands.

That's because Leslie Ann Werner, who was also an applicant considered, is challenging Ernst in the Republican primary.

Werner has been practicing law for 26 years. She is passionate about her five years of experience as a research attorney at the courts of appeals in Houston and Corpus Christi, where "law is being decided, determined and applied."

"That gave me an enormous amount of experience in seeing what attorneys do right and wrong but, more importantly, from my perspective now, what the judges have done right or wrong," she said.

Ernst said his 13-year legal career - which includes a stint at the District Attorney's Office under now defense attorney George Filley III and running his own private practice - has been focused on the kinds of cases heard in the county courts-at-law.

"Other than my wedding day, this is the happiest I've been in my life," Ernst said.

"It's hard taking over a spot of someone so beloved," he said of his predecessor, retired Judge Laura Weiser. "I'm keeping up the pace and integrity of her court."

It is fulfilling to work with juveniles and to hear some of the offenders' stories of sobriety in the Driving While Intoxicated court, which Weiser helped start, Ernst said.

"When you hear those kinds of testimonials, you know you are doing a good thing," Ernst said.

The DWI court checks offenders biweekly and connects them with treatment providers for alcohol or substance abuse.

Ernst said if he's elected, he will explore whether a veterans' court could be established.

It would be run in a similar fashion and is beneficial because problems with an offender's probation would be discovered early on rather than a "month down the road," he said.

"They (veterans) sometimes come back with mental health problems," Ernst said.

Werner, a single mother of children ages 17 and 19, would like to fashion creative sentences for juvenile cases.

"For example, if they were convicted or received probation for a theft, then they need to do community service at a place that helps people who are poor, such as the Salvation Army," she said.

For Ernst, every sentence he hands down is "creative" or "tailored to the individual and the offense," he said.

Werner is also concerned that most civil cases are not heard for about 18 months after they are filed. And while the county grows, so too will litigation, so she "would like to see more summary dispositions of cases that really do not have merit."

If elected, she says she would sit down with attorneys who wish to voice concerns about how the court is run, not about specific cases.

It was not known Thursday how long it takes for civil cases to be resolved in the courts-at-law.

Werner said that if elected, she would be the only woman county court-at-law judge in the Crossroads.

"I think it's important to have a person on the bench who represents a portion of the population," she said, "but that is not the entirety of my focus."

Victoria attorney Rodney Durham likes that there is a separate probate docket under the current court-at-law judges because it reduces everyone's wait time.

Probate is "the process of proving in court that the will of a person who has died is valid," according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Durham supports Ernst, who he said has shown he has the temperament to be judge.

"He's treated everyone that I know who has come before him with the respect they deserve," Durham said.

He did not have anything negative to say about Werner.

William Patterson attended law school with Werner. He has homes in Pasadena and Yoakum and still consults with Werner about unfamiliar legal matters.

"I will call up her up and say, 'This is the scenario I have,' and she's always pulled through with case law, statutes and a full understanding of the law," Patterson said.

He does not know Ernst.

"You need a judge who knows the law, not someone who is going to shoot from the hip," Patterson said.

Both Ernst and Werner have had clean public disciplinary records for the past 10 years, according to the State Bar of Texas.



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