The specter of COVID-19 hangs over the justice of the peace races in the 2022 primary election season, as challengers say that court shutdowns meant backlogs and less transparency to the public.
These lower-level courts handle criminal traffic citations and other misdemeanors requiring fines; small claims lawsuits under $20,000; truancy cases when students miss school; and landlord and tenant disputes, among other duties.
Like schools and other government facilities, JP courts shut down for two months in the early days of the pandemic, along with the rest of El Paso County. Now, they’ve reopened with individual rules made by elected justices of the peace.
El Paso has eight justices of the peace serving in seven precincts in the county, all of whom are up for reelection this year. The position does not require prior legal experience. Instead, elected JPs are required to obtain 80 hours of continuing education through the state during their first year in office. After that, they are only required to take 20 hours each year.
The requirements for JP candidates are: to be a U.S. citizen, 18 years or older; living in Texas for at least a year, and in the precinct for at least six months; registered to vote; no felony convictions (without a pardon); and not determined to be mentally incapacitated.
Five of the El Paso justice of the peace seats are contested.
Located in Northeast El Paso, tensions between elected officials in the constable’s office and the justice of the peace office have spilled into the Democratic primary election. Both candidates have publicly accused the other of lying in debates and interviews.
The constable is an elected official with law enforcement duties such as serving all warrants for JP courts. Constables are also required by law to assist with bailiff duties.
Brian Haggerty (Incumbent)
Haggerty, 65, has held the seat for nearly 12 years. The Haggerty family has deep ties to local politics, with members of the family elected to positions such as state representative, county commissioner, school boards and more — on both sides of the aisle.
Haggerty has raised about $4,500 and spent $8,000 of his own money according to the most recent election filing. The scanned document is nearly illegible, but Haggerty said in an interview his largest donation came from the El Paso firefighters union.
He said his court was closed due to the pandemic between March and May of 2020, adding that reopening was a challenge with a staggered schedule. Staff are currently on a rotating hybrid schedule, meaning each of the six staff members only work two days a week in the office.
“It is very difficult to get into the office by phone,” he said, “but we’ve been open Monday through Friday.”
Haggerty said the court is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week.
Haggerty said his focus is to expand staff training.
“I want to make sure my clerks are well-trained so they know exactly what the answer is when someone walks in with a question,” he said.
Robinson, 42, is a teacher at Americas High School, after retiring from two decades as a deputy sheriff in 2020.
His primary concerns are creating a better working relationship between the precinct’s justice of the peace and constable offices, and to “open the court” for more hours, saying it’s otherwise inaccessible.
Robinson received 13 contributions to his campaign in between December and January totaling $1,450, according to finance records.
Notably, that included donations from Constable Danny Zamora and deputy constable Lorenzo Marquez — who both work for Precinct 2 — who each donated $100.
Robinson said he’s known Zamora for two decades, when they attended the detention officer’s academy together.
“There’s animosity between the two (offices), but the constable’s office is supporting me 100%,” Robinson said.
Zamora said in an interview he unequivocally supports Robinson’s campaign over Haggerty.
“It’s no secret,” Zamora said about backing Robinson’s campaign. “There have been personal and political attacks on me since I got into office because I beat his brother.”
Zamora said the feud with the judge stemmed from Zamora’s unseating of Jerimiah Haggerty, Brian Haggerty’s brother, as Precinct 2 Constable in 2020, but expanded after fights over who has bailiff duties in the courtroom.
Haggerty disagreed that his brother’s election loss was the core issue between himself and Zamora.
“That’s B.S.,” he said in response.
Haggerty said that the animosity stemmed from Zamora’s assignment of a deputy constable right out of training as a bailiff in Haggerty’s court, which Haggerty said broke the law.
Zamora countered by saying Haggerty’s actions of removing the bailiff threatened the Texas Constitution.
Robinson said if he was elected, he would ensure both offices would cooperate.
Four Democrats are vying for the office located in Southeast El Paso. If no candidate clinches the majority of votes in the March 1 primary, the top two candidates will continue to a May runoff election.
John Chatman (Incumbent)
Chatman, 67, has held the seat for two terms after joining the office in 2015.
He declined multiple chances to comment, telling El Paso Matters, “I am unavailable and will be tied up with court and other things.”
Chatman is currently the lowest-paid justice of the peace in the county, at $88,916 while every other JP makes $101,247.
County commissioners unanimously voted to deny Chatman a raise, citing unspecified allegations regarding his conduct after a closed session about a personnel matter, according to a Sept. 27 commissioners court meeting.
Commissioners said Chatman failed to pay overtime to staff, terminated an employee without prior notice and “imposed arbitrary workplace rules” such as requiring employees to use a single restroom instead of others in the building, according to a letter shared at a Sept. 15 salary grievance committee meeting.
Jerry Howard, Chatman’s attorney at the grievance committee meeting, said Chatman was unaware of a county investigation into the employee termination, and argued that the county had no jurisdiction over the matter. Howard said Chatman’s rule for the bathroom was to prevent employees from exposure to the coronavirus.
Howard alleged the county was singling out Chatman because of his race.
“Judge Chatman is the only African American JP in this county, he is also the only JP with a pending discrimination charge against the county,” Howard said. “He is also the only JP in this county who is going to get paid a whole heck of a lot less than the rest.”
County Attorney Eddie Sosa countered that Chatman’s actions opened the county to liability.
At the Sept. 27 meeting, Chatman’s attorney George Andritsos asked commissioners to reconsider their decision to deny Chatman a 3.8% raise because a citizen grievance committee voted 7-2 in favor of the pay increase. Again, Andritsos alleged he county was discriminating against Chatman
Precinct 4 Commissioner Carl Robinson said calling the commissioners court decision an act of discrimination was “far from the truth.”
“Of all the (justices of the peace) we have in this county, we spent more time on Judge Chatman than all the other JPs combined, because of all the issues we had to take into consideration,” Robinson said.
Chatman raised $3,950 in 11 contributions in December, according to his most recent campaign finance documents. The largest contribution was from construction businessman, Randall Bowling, for $1,000.
Eileen Ashley Marlin
Marlin, 47, is a first-time candidate but longtime clerk, saying her experience is invaluable to running a justice of the peace office.
She started as an office administrator in the JP Precinct 5 office in 2007, before transitioning to a court coordinator. She’s been an administrative assistant and office supervisor for JP Ruben Lujan since 2014.
“I treat people with respect, Just because they got a citation does not mean they need to be looked down upon,” she said.
Marlin has reported no donations, but spent nearly $10,000 on her campaign, according to campaign finance documents.
Lucilla “Lucy” Najera
Najera, 57, has worked as a court process server and private investigator.
This is not Najera’s first time fighting for the seat. In 2018, she forced Chatman into a runoff, losing to him by 525 votes.
Her work in the last four years has been honing community connections, which she said would give her the edge this time.
“I’m very determined to be a voice for my community,” she said.
Campaign finance documents show Najera has raised $650 from four donors.
Munoz, 66, worked for the county for nearly two decades as a court clerk, administrative assistant and legal secretary, saying her focus would be keeping staff retained at the court.
“By making sure that employees are treated with dignity and respect. I would make sure that they were trained properly and valued so that there isn’t a constant turnover,” she said.
Munoz reported one $500 contribution, according to campaign finance documents.
The justice of the peace seat is located in Clint.
Ruben Lujan (Incumbent)
Lujan, 70, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Lujan has held the seat for five terms since he was first elected in 2002.
Campaign finance documents show Lujan has reported no candidate contributions, but has spent a little over $2,000 for signs and filing fees.
Yolanda “Yolie” Rodela
Rodela did not respond to multiple requests for comment. This is her first campaign for public office.
Rodela has spent more than $3,500 on signs, advertising and fees, according to campaign finance documents. She has also reported no campaign donations.
Both candidates are longtime rivals over the far-East El Paso justice of the peace seat, and their previous match-ups have been close races, determined by a margin of 309 votes in 2018.
Enedina “Nina” Serna (Incumbent)
Serna did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Serna, 64, has held the position for two consecutive terms since winning the 2014 primary election.
She reported zero contributions to her campaign, according to finance documents, and spent about $4,700 on advertising and signs.
Rosalie “Rosie” Dominguez
Dominguez also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Dominguez, 54, held the seat for two terms between 2007 and 2014, before being ousted by Serna in the 2014 primary.
Dominguez reported zero political contributions in her most recent campaign reports, spending $1,000 on advertising and signs.
In 2014, Dominguez sued Serna and several associates on her campaign as well as Precinct 6, Place 1 JP Ruben Lujan, disputing the election outcome and alleging voter fraud and tampering with the election by taking advantage of elderly and disabled people.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2018, after a district judge ruled the parties hadn’t moved forward with the case.
The lawsuit sparked a Texas Attorney General’s investigation into Dominguez’s election fraud claims, but it’s unclear what became of that investigation.
Voters have four choices in the Vinton-based justice of the peace seat as both Democrat and Republican candidates are running.
Stephanie Frietze (Incumbent)
Frietze, 44, was first elected in 2018, and said she has worked on accessibility in an area where cell use and internet is limited, which included expanding office access, which she said has cut wait times.
She said her court has remained mostly open after the closure order was lifted in May 2020, but that outbreaks of COVID-19 in the office have forced periodic shutdowns, the most recent being a few weeks ago.
“As long as our numbers don’t go up, I’ll have my doors open,” she said.
Before taking office, Frietze was a Canutillo Independent School District trustee.
Campaign finance documents show Frietze has raised $2,250 from 17 donations, the largest was a $500 donation from attorney Victor Poulos.
Humberto “Beto” Enriquez
Enriquez, 56, is a local personal injury attorney who said his three decades of law practice will bring a “fair and transparent” process to the court, and increase its efficiency.
Enriquez won the support of local attorneys, as an informal poll by the El Paso Bar Association showed 112 of 126 votes — or 88% — of members supported him over incumbent Frietze.
Attorneys also shelled out, according to the latest campaign finance reports, accounting for most of his 11 donations totalling $3,600. Nearly half of the donations were $500 dollars.
Ida Baeza Gardner
Baeza Gardner, 52, is a part-time municipal judge for the Town of Anthony, a position she was appointed to in 2009.
Baeza Gardner said her background as an appointed official and her more than two decades as office manager in a JP court make her an experienced candidate.
“I know that I am a public servant, and as an elected official, this position would not put me on a power trip,” she said.
Baeza Gardner ran for the seat in the 2014 primary and 2018 general elections.
In January, she raised $800 from three donors, all listed as retired, including one donation for $400 from Rachel Gabriel.
Urquidi, 36, lost to Baeza Gardner in the 2018 Republican primary. She’s a longtime clerk in the Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace office, having worked there for 11 years including as a master clerk and an office supervisor.
“I feel like someone who has experience in both levels will only truly understand that an efficient court starts with the clerks that handle your case filings,” she said.
The latest campaign finance documents show Urquidi has not listed any contributions to her campaign.
This story has been updated to correct the hours of operation at the Justice of the Peace Pct. 2 office and to correct candidate Eileen Ashley Marlin’s current employment.
Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at [email protected].