Democratic candidates Lisa Soto and Veronica Teresa Lerma are rookies when it comes to running for office, but both are leaning on hometown credentials in their race for the Place 2 seat on the 8th Court of Appeals.

That seat is currently held by Justice Jeff Alley, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 and is uncontested in the March 1 Republican primary. The Democratic primary winner will challenge Alley in the November general election.

The El Paso-based 8th Court of Appeals covers 17 West Texas counties. It is often the last stop for criminal and civil cases under review in lower county and state trial courts, such as the legal challenges filed regarding El Paso’s 2021 mask mandate.

Texas’ 14 appellate courts decided more than 7,000 cases in 2020. Comparatively, the Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest court for civil cases, only accepts about 1,000 cases a year.

Both Democratic primary candidates share a similar story of leaving El Paso to attend prestigious colleges, returning to make a difference in the local legal field. They emphasized their divergent experience in the appeals process, which they say best sets them up for success in handling the pressures of being a justice.

Veronica Teresa Lerma

Lerma, 42, is a civil, criminal, family and appellate lawyer, who has practiced in El Paso since graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., in 2008. She highlights the 47 appeals she’s filed, saying it offers her unique insight.

“The appellate court here in El Paso is the last resort for a lot of people,” Lerma said. “I’ll be able to review their cases with an eye of knowing what happens at trial, knowing what the law is, and also the experience of having represented people in court.”

Soto, 49, said attorney colleagues recommended she run for the position.  

“I dedicated so much of my life to polishing these skills that are so relevant and it’s my time to give back,” she said.

Soto has practiced in Texas since 1997 and was also licensed in California in 1990, after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law.

Her background is in administrative labor law. Her University of Texas at El Paso bio, where she’s a professor of practice, notes she represented “school districts, colleges, and governmental entities in California in administrative processes, litigation and appeals, and labor negotiations” and “employees and small businesses in employment and labor matters” in Texas.

Soto received 34.6% of 133 votes in the El Paso Bar Association’s judicial candidate poll and Lerma garnered 21.8%. Incumbent Alley led the poll with 43.6% of the votes.

Since 2020, Soto has been an independent contractor for the 8th Court of Appeals, working for Chief Justice Yvonne Rodriguez. Soto described the work as doing legal analysis by reading through transcripts, legal arguments and other evidence from the decision under appeal to assist the justice in drafting the opinion.

Lisa Soto

Soto said this experience has prepared her for working as a justice by directly honing legal analysis, management skills and collaboration since an appellate court “is a very different animal than trial court.”

Lerma has taken aim at Soto’s position in the 8th Court, saying contracting additional attorneys obfuscates how appeals are being decided.

“I think there does have to be a review as to who’s working on the cases and kind of the transparency as to how we know who’s handling these cases,” Lerma said. “We elect justices to work on this. We’re paying staff attorneys to work on the court cases, and so we do have to review efficiency as to how things are getting done.”

Elected justices serve six-year terms. The salary for an appeals court justice ranges from $154,000 to $184,800, depending on years of experience.

The three-justice 8th Court of Appeals is among the smallest of the state’s appellate courts, some of which have up to 13 justices. Because a three-justice panel hears an appeal, any absence on the 8th Court brings its operations to a halt.

The 8th Court had the lowest clearance rate of the other courts at 86% in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. It disposed of 245 cases in 2020 and ended that year with 315 cases pending.

The door to the 8th Court of Appeals, which is housed in the El Paso County Courthouse. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The justice race is one of the local primary’s most expensive. Soto has outstripped Lerma five to one in campaign fundraising.

Soto raised $74,197 through Jan. 20, according to campaign finance reports, while Lerma brought in $14,524.

Individual contributions to candidates running for appeals courts are capped at $2,500.

Soto’s top contributors include a mix of El Paso attorneys and businesspeople. Attorneys ​​George Andritsos, John Mobbs and Felix Valenzuela each contributed $2,500 and the Llamas Law firm gave $2,000. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who owns Hyundai of El Paso, gave $1,000, and businessman Ed Soto and his family gave a combined $5,500.

Lerma’s biggest contributors were attorneys Luis Yanez and Linda Perez who each gave $2,500.

Election day for the primary is March 1. Early voting runs from Feb. 14 through Feb. 25.

Cover photo: The 8th Court of Appeals inside the El Paso County Courthouse. The El Paso-based court covers 17 West Texas counties. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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...