In the Democratic primary race for El Paso County Court at Law No. 2, the challenger to a longstanding incumbent judge says she is running to instill a more courteous courtroom atmosphere.
Judge Julie Gonzalez, who has been a judge for 26 years, denied claims by her opponent, jail magistrate judge Sara Priddy, that Gonzalez does not treat attorneys and defendants with respect.
“The practice of law has changed considerably,” Gonzalez said. “I require lawyers to show up. I require lawyers to be prepared. I’m sure I’m not the only judge that does this. But unfortunately, I think there’s still a bias against female judges and (if) the male judge does the same thing I do, they accept it. The female judge does something, then they start with a B-word or ‘Oh, she’s in a mood.’”
Priddy said that judicial ethics “require judges to be patient and to treat people with dignity, and to treat them courteously.”
“Even if TV makes judges out to be scary and passes that off as okay, that’s not what the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires of a judge,” she said.
County Court at Law No. 2 handles criminal misdemeanor cases such as DWIs. Because there is no Republican challenger, the winner of the March 1 Democratic primary will be seated on Jan. 1, 2023, to a four-year term.
Early voting began Monday and ends on Feb. 25.
Gonzalez, 61, began her judicial career in 1995, when she was unanimously appointed by the El Paso Council of Judges to serve as a criminal law magistrate. Before this, she worked on civil cases with El Paso Assistance Society, workers compensation cases with a private law firm and at the El Paso Public Defender’s office.
Katy Escobedo has known Gonzalez since they worked together at the El Paso Assistance Society and served as Gonzalez’s court coordinator for 17 years before her retirement. Now, she volunteers on Gonzalez’s campaign and considers her a friend.
“As both a judge and an employer, she is one who likes excellence,” Escobedo said. “And what I always saw is that she demanded excellence from herself first of all, so that we all had an example to follow.”
In 1998, Gonzalez ran to replace the retiring judge of County Court at Law No. 2, and has been on this bench ever since — drawing an opponent only once before, in the 2010 primary elections.
“If you compare us on qualifications, I am head over heels more qualified than (Priddy) is,” she said. “The only chance she has is to attack me.”
Priddy, 44, said that her experience as a prosecutor, public defender, Army veteran, mother of six children and jail magistrate will enable her to be a more patient presence on the bench.
Gonzalez “was never a prosecutor, she was never a municipal court judge. She didn’t have a whole lot of life experience before that either,” Priddy said. “Whereas I’m a mom of six kids, I’ve been in the Army, I drove forklifts — I’ve done everything. So I think I am multi-dimensional. And she’s just been doing this one thing for a quarter of a (century).”
As an example of Gonzalez’ courtroom demeanor, Priddy pointed to her own experience as a prosecutor assigned to County Court at Law No. 2. She said that in 2013, Gonzalez denied her request to step out of the courtroom to breast pump.
“I’m only talking about 10 minutes at a given time every day, and she wouldn’t allow that,” Priddy said. “I didn’t complain when she denied me the basic human rights to pump because I was a new prosecutor, and I didn’t want to rock the boat.” Instead, Priddy said she told a friend about the incident, and the friend, also an attorney, spread a false version of events among the legal community.
Gonzalez said that she did not deny Priddy’s request. Years later, she said, Priddy apologized to her in person “for making a big deal out of it.”
Priddy said she apologized only for the actions of her friend. But the incident spoke to a pattern of behavior for Gonzalez, she said, adding,“That’s just for me where it all started.”
Thomas Carter is a criminal defense attorney and Priddy’s campaign manager. He first interacted with Priddy when she was a prosecutor, calling her “always a pleasure to work with.”
In contrast, Carter said that he and his clients have experienced poor treatment in Gonzalez’s court.
An incident that stuck with him involved a military veteran who was sick with cancer and mobility impaired, and dependent on others for transportation to court. Carter’s client had been late to hearings before and received warnings from Gonzalez, to which Carter explained that the man was sick. When his client arrived late to another hearing, Carter said, Gonzalez revoked the client’s bail.
“She threw him in jail,” Carter said. “She’s made grown men feel so powerless. It’s very disheartening.”
Gonzalez said she does revoke defendants’ bail if they are regularly late, but makes exceptions depending on the circumstances. She did not recall the incident Carter described, but said that she makes accommodations for defendants who are sick and can present a doctor’s note.
“Usually, my policy is the first time you show up late, I’ll talk to you to find out the reason and admonish you about showing up to court on time.” she said. “I am a stickler for people showing up to court on time, including attorneys. If they’re off in another court, I don’t have a problem with it. But if they’re off doing some personal business or whatever, then I have a problem with it.”
Priddy has received a total of $13,119 in political donations, according to her Jan. 18 and Jan 31 campaign finance reports.
Gonzalez has received no political donations, according to her reports. She said she chose not to fundraise this election cycle.
Cover photo: The entry to El Paso County Court at Law No. 2. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)