For 20 years, the race for 327th District Court judge has been a quiet one, fielded by a single candidate: Judge Linda Yee Chew, who ran unopposed in 2002 and never faced a primary challenge during her two decades on the bench.

With Chew retiring at the end of this year, the race to replace her drew four attorneys, all Democrats. Among the challengers are Monique Velarde Reyes, a sitting municipal judge; Chris Daniel Anchondo, who has spent his career in private practice with his father, a longtime leader in local politics; Alexandria Serra, who doubles as a small business owner and social media influencer; and Cori Harbour-Valdez, who casts herself as a mentee of Judge Chew.

The race has also grown messy. Two candidates’ social media posts have led to increased scrutiny of their judgment.

The 327th District Court handles only civil cases, where issues involving property taxes, intellectual property, contract disputes, workers’ compensation, wrongful termination, asbestos and city ordinances might appear on the docket. With civil matters, it can be the judge, rather than the jury, who rules on a case and determines financial penalties.

Early voting for the March 1 primary runs from Feb. 14 to Feb. 25. If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will head to a May runoff election. There are no Republicans seeking this seat.

Chris Daniel Anchondo

Anchondo, 40, comes from a well-known El Paso legal family. He holds 14 years of experience working in private practice with his father in civil, criminal, family, and probate cases. Anchondo’s father, Daniel “Danny” Anchondo, was the former chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party and was briefly appointed to serve as El Paso County Attorney in the mid-1980s.

Chris Daniel Anchondo

Anchondo said his father taught him the value of public service and hard work. “But realistically, his endeavors have had no bearing on mine,” he said. “He’s got his accolades, and I’m hoping to make my own.”

Anchondo’s uncle Robert “Bobby” Anchondo is also a sitting judge for El Paso County Criminal Court at Law No. 2.

Anchondo said what sets him apart from the other candidates is his experience in handling complex legal issues while working on “big cases, multimillion-dollar cases that have affected people’s lives.”

“It’s always important to never lose track of the fact that, whatever we do as possible judges and as attorneys right now, they have implications on people’s lives,” he said.

Anchondo has been vying for a judgeship for some time, with an unsuccessful run for El Paso Municipal Court No. 1 Judge in 2017. He also applied to serve as El Paso Municipal Court No. 4 judge to fill the vacancy left by Lillian Blancas, who died of COVID-19 days before she was elected to the seat in a runoff.

Anchondo had received $10,400 in political contributions as of the Jan. 31 filing deadline. He came in second in a candidate poll by the El Paso Bar Association, receiving 25% of 132 votes cast among association members.

Cori Harbour-Valdez

Raised in East Texas by a single mother and public-school teacher, Harbour-Valdez, 51, moved to El Paso in 1997 to clerk at the 8th Court of Appeals. The four-justice panel included Justice David Wellington Chew, brother to Linda Chew.

“I am running for this bench because Linda Chew is one of my mentors,” Harbour-Valdez said. “When I learned that she would not be seeking reelection, I knew this was the opportunity for which I’d been preparing.”

Cori Harbour-Valdez

She and Chew have “talked about me being a judge pretty much from day one,” she added.

Harbour-Valdez said that Chew has “on a number of cases” appointed her to act as guardian ad litem, a contract position that involved representing the legal interests of children in settlements. “She entrusted me with basically planning a child’s future,” Harbour-Valdez said.

Chew, who still sits on the bench, has not endorsed Harbour-Valdez and is unlikely to: The State Commission on Judicial Conduct holds that sitting judges should not make political endorsements.

The one member of the Chew family to endorse Harbour-Valdez is Mandy Chew, who is married to retired Justice David Wellington Chew.

The race for 327th District Court judge comes down to experience, said Harbour-Valdez, who touts her 25 years of practicing law. This includes experience in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants in civil and criminal cases. Since 2013, she has served as an associate municipal judge for the City of El Paso, substituting for municipal judges as needed. The municipal courts hear Class C misdemeanor cases and parking citations issued within city limits.

To run for state district court, a candidate must have been a practicing lawyer or judge for at least four years.

“Some people may not put much stock in how long you’ve been an attorney, but I think it matters,” Harbour-Valdez said. “With years of practice comes wisdom, as with age comes wisdom. I don’t think that can be learned in 5-10 years of practice. Had someone asked me to run as a young lawyer with only that limited amount of experience, I don’t think I would have been ready.”

Her defense of Mario Iglesias-Villegas, a co-defendant in the case against former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, recently led to the scrutiny of a photo that Harbour-Valdez posted on Facebook of herself alongside the drug lord’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, during Guzmán’s trial at the Eastern District of New York Federal Courthouse in January 2019.

Harbour-Valdez said she attended the trial for her work representing Iglesias and approached Coronel as a potential witness in Iglesias’ case. “Like any good lawyer, I am going to interview a witness before I decide if I’m going to put them on my witness list and call them in my client’s defense,” she said. “So yeah, I did talk with her. I met her.”

The jury box of the 327th District Court. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In August 2019, Harbour-Valdez was removed as Iglesias’ defense attorney due to a conflict of interest posed by her earlier defense of another client.

Asked why she posted the photo of herself with Coronel — which as of Feb. 8 was still on Harbour-Valdez’s personal Facebook page — she said: “That was done for other reasons that I’m not necessarily going to disclose because it was done for strategic purposes with my defense. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Harbour-Valdez so far has garnered the highest amount in donations of all the candidates, taking in a total of $14,740 as of the Jan. 31 filing deadline. She came in first in the El Paso Bar Association’s poll, with 50% of the votes.

Alexandria Serra

The daughter of a Texan mother and a Puerto Rican father, Serra, 37, grew up in Kansas and came to El Paso in 2014, soon after graduating from law school, to work at the El Paso County Public Defender’s Office. She has worked as a patent attorney; handled criminal, civil and probate law cases; and holds trial experience in “everything from DWIs, to traffic tickets to murder cases,” she said.

In addition to her private law practice, Serra regularly posts legal educational videos on Instagram. “I’m all about giving as much free legal education as possible because a lot can be super, super confusing to folks and I think that stops a lot of people from really using it to their advantage,” she said.

Alexandria Serra

According to several judges, Serra’s comments on social media led to her resignation as a jail magistrate for the County of El Paso. The El Paso Council of Judges appointed her to this position in February 2020 following a job application and interview process. Serra resigned on Feb. 2, 2021.

Serra has not disclosed her yearlong judicial position on her campaign website or in the “friends & colleagues” letter announcing her Jan. 4 campaign launch. She also did not reference it on an El Paso Matters candidate questionnaire asking her to describe her qualifications for the district judgeship or in an initial interview.

After Serra posted a TikTok video critical of other sitting judges, the Council of Judges asked Serra to resign on the grounds that her statements in the video violated the Texas Judicial Code of Conduct. The code, which is non-binding, states that judges, including magistrate judges, “must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system.”

The Lion Star blog, a political opinion website written by former radio show host Jaime Abetyia, first wrote about Serra’s work as a jail magistrate and linked to a TikTok video thought to have spurred the resignation request. El Paso Matters has not been able to confirm if this particular video led to her resignation.

In the since-deleted video, Serra says in a joking tone: “So, I was recently asked, ‘what’s a typical day like being a criminal defense lawyer? And I said, ‘oh there’s not really a typical day.’ But what I really wanted to say was, ‘Well it depends on which judge is off their meds and calls me incompetent today, even though I know more law and have been in more jury trials than they have in their entire career.’”

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which is intended as a guide, also holds that “a judge or judicial candidate shall not… knowingly or recklessly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position, or other fact concerning the candidate or an opponent.”

Serra declined to be interviewed about her magistrate position. She requested questions in writing and has not responded.

Serra also touts her business and leadership experience outside the law. She founded Double Dog Dare Bakery and D’lux Dog Care. Most recently, she launched Project Raising the Bar, Inc., aimed at “empowering underprivileged high school girls in El Paso,” according to her campaign materials.

Of all the candidates, “I have the most real-world experience, in law and business,” she said.

If elected to the 327th District Court, ethics rules would require Serra to separate from these positions, selling or transferring her businesses to someone else. As district judge, “I’d probably have more time,” she joked.

As of Jan. 31, she’d reported receiving $6,110 in political donations. Serra came in fourth in the El Paso Bar Association’s poll, with 12.12% of the vote.

Monique Velarde Reyes

Velarde Reyes, 45, has been licensed to practice law in Texas since 2007 and has served as the City of Socorro’s sole municipal court judge since 2016 while continuing to practice as a private attorney. In her private law practice, she handles criminal defense, probate and domestic violence cases, along with cases involving DWIs and traffic violations.

Monique Velarde Reyes

“I am very proud of the fact that people are comfortable coming to my court,” she said. “That sounds really odd. But there’s a lot of people who get scared of going to court. And when they come in, they realize I don’t bite — you know, I can joke, I can laugh.”

In 2018, Velarde lost the Democratic primary for the 210th District Court judge. Part of what motivated her to run, she said at the time, was a disrespectful courtroom atmosphere stoked by El Paso judges.

One of the most important issues in this race, Velarde said, is the impact of COVID-19 on case processing times. While she and other candidates praised the efficiency of Chew’s courtroom despite the pandemic, it will be important for Chew’s successor to maintain that efficiency without sacrificing each party’s ability to prepare for their case, Velarde said. Her experience managing a docket during the pandemic has prepared her to take on the court’s caseload, she said.

Long case wait times, she noted, “can keep a person from being able to move forward with their lives.”

Velarde, who grew up in Fabens, worked in the Canutillo Independent School District for two years as a middle school teacher before applying to law school — the result of a bet she made during a career day with students who didn’t believe her when she said they could be whatever they wanted to be. “I told them, I’ll go to law school and be a lawyer, but you’ll need to graduate high school.” When at the end of the school year, she told those students she was leaving for law school, she said, “they were shocked.”

“I have served all this community from Anthony to Tornillo, and I think we need a judge who reflects this community and who reflects the needs and the wants of the people that she serves,” Velarde said. Sometimes, she said, “judges kind of forget that it’s the community who puts them there.”

Velarde reported $3,755 in political contributions as of Jan. 31, and came in third in the El Paso Bar Association’s candidate poll, narrowly beating Serra to earn 12.88% of the vote.

Cover photo: The view from behind 327th District Court Judge Linda Chew’s bench. Chew is retiring at the end of 2022 after two decades in office. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Victoria Rossi is a women and gender issues reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal...