Re-ordering the Bench
The Tarrant County criminal justice system is poised for a significant makeover with the March 4 primary election looming. Four of the county’s 10 criminal court judges are retiring and taking about 100 years of combined experience with them. One longtime state district judge is retiring, and another, Sharen Wilson, stepped down last year to run for district attorney.
“This will be the biggest major shift in the criminal justice leadership, when you combine the DA race with the number of judgeships being sought,” said County Criminal Court Judge Daryl Coffey, who is among the judges retiring this year. “The DA’s office can effect systematic change better than anyone, by the way they prosecute crime and implement programs.”
The DA’s office has seen almost 50 years of relatively static leadership under former DA Tim Curry and his protégé and successor Joe Shannon, who decided not to seek re-election after controversy arose over his settlement for a sexual harassment suit in 2012, paid with county funds.
“It’s tremendously significant because of the fact we’ve had the same regime running the DA’s office for so long,” said Sheriff Dee Anderson. “Certainly for a long time it’s been a widely respected organization, and now a change is coming and it’s important that it’s the right kind of change.”
Wilson, with 23 years of bench experience, was the most vocal about implementing changes during Fort Worth Weekly’s interviews with the candidates. She also wants to “repurpose” some prosecutors to specialize in crimes such as identity theft and offenses against the elderly. And she’d like to study DA’s offices in other counties and cherry-pick programs that work.
“We need to be willing to see what works in other places and see if it works here,” she said.
Lowthorp is an Arlington criminal defense attorney who has squared off against the DA’s office many times over the years. She thinks prosecutors can be more successful in court if they receive enhanced training in technology and sciences, such as field sobriety testing. If elected, she would encourage prosecutors and law enforcement officers to become more aggressive in gathering evidence and trying cases.
Lowthorp and Mackey said the Tarrant DA’s office is among the best in the state, such as when it comes to open-records policies and diversion programs. although factual backup for such comparisons is hard to find. Wilson called it a “well-respected office” with “excellent lawyers” but “how you compare one [DA’s office] to another I don’t know.”
Mackey appears most likely to maintain the status quo. “What Tim Curry had, I’m going to continue on and build on his legacy,” he said.
Mackey, a former chief prosecutor here, is now a criminal defense attorney who said he would encourage prosecutors to focus more on repeat criminal offenders and to develop ways to deter their conduct.
County court insiders were buzzing last year when Shannon allowed two of his prosecutors to operate Plan A&B Advisors, a side business in which they create websites and help with political campaigns. The Weekly explored the potential for ethical breaches in a recent article (“Working For Judges They Work With,” Dec. 11, 2013).
Mackey is the only candidate who appeared unconcerned about the business. “Both of those lawyers are very ethical attorneys,” he said.
Even the appearance of crossing an ethical line should prevent prosecutors from running a business in which they work on judges’ campaigns, Lowthorp said.
Wilson went even further.
“I’ve suggested to them that if I were the DA, they wouldn’t be doing that,” she said. “I don’t think they’ve done anything unethical or illegal, but it says to me these lawyers aren’t busy enough.”
Anderson is endorsing Wilson in part because of those tough stances. They worked together on criminal cases years ago when Anderson was an Arlington police officer and Wilson a prosecutor.
“I really respected the job she did,” the sheriff said. “As she moved on and became a judge, I followed her career and testified in her court several times, and I felt like she was someone I could come to with issues. She is a really accessible person and has the reputation as being very tough but fair, and that’s the quality we’re looking for in the next DA.”
Many regard Wilson as the front-runner for the position, which pays almost $200,000 a year. The district attorney oversees an office of 165 attorneys, a total staff of about 325, and a budget of about $34 million. The office handles about 45,000 criminal cases a year, most of them within a year of being filed.
One of the reasons Lowthorp entered the race was that she doesn’t think Wilson is suited for the job. The two clashed in the mid-2000s when Lowthorp was representing a teenage defendant in Wilson’s court. She accused Wilson of denying her client’s constitutional rights to secure a bond prior to trial and trying to sway jurors during deliberations. Lowthorp’s complaint resulted in the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issuing Wilson a private sanction in 2008. The commission didn’t disclose any further details about the sanction.
“A lawyer would have been disbarred or definitely put on some sort of probationary period, because that’s a big no-no,” Lowthorp said. “We don’t know what the punishment was, but the fact that it was recognized as being wrong is what’s important.”
Wilson agreed that she acted improperly in that situation. But the admonition was the only one she received in 23 years on the bench, she said.
“I did it for the safety of the community,” she said of her actions in that case. “If I make a mistake, it will be for the safety of the community.”
Courthouse observers predict that Lowthorp will draw ultra-conservative voters away from Mackey, further strengthening Wilson’s position. Former State District Judge Bob Gill, who was the early favorite to succeed Shannon, pulled out of the race and endorsed Mackey.
County Tax Assessor/Collector Ron Wright is among Shannon’s most vocal critics. Wright asked Shannon to resign after the county paid a $375,000 settlement in a lawsuit brought by a former assistant DA who accused Shannon of sexual harassment. Wright is endorsing Wilson and predicted she will win without a runoff.
“It’s a great opportunity to have the fresh blood, fresh perspective that would come in with a new regime,” he said. “She’s not going to go in and burn the house down, but she is going to make some very positive changes.”