The choice for El Paso County Court at Law No. 3 comes down to attorneys Melissa Baeza, 38, and Monica “Lupita” Perez, 33 — both moms and native El Pasoans who will become among the youngest judges in the state for a county court at law, where the average age is 57.
The winner will take over the bench from departing Judge Javier Alvarez, who served on the civil court for 27 years.
In the March 1 Democratic primary, Baeza and Perez took 36% and 33%, respectively, of the total votes cast, beating out city of El Paso Associate Municipal Court Judge Jorge Rivas to advance to May’s primary runoff. There are no Republican challengers for this seat.
The runoff election is on May 24 and early voting lasts from May 16 to May 20.
El Paso Matters spoke to both candidates before the runoff. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
El Paso Matters: What should voters know about County Court at Law No. 3?
Melissa Baeza: It handles a wide range of civil cases, from employment disputes to business disputes, to car accidents and other personal injury cases. If you have one of these issues, there’s a possibility that you could end up in this court.
Monica “Lupita” Perez: This court handles civil cases only; there’s no criminal, no family, no probate cases. That’s pretty significant because it’s one of the few civil-only courts that we have (in El Paso). The lawsuits that are filed in there are anything from a medical malpractice case to a labor and employment case, personal injury case, or contractual disputes.
But also what I think is very relevant to the everyday voter is that appeals from the Justice of the Peace courts may end up in County Court at Law No. 3. For our JP courts, now, their amount in controversy was increased to up to $20,000. And so you’re going to have maybe bigger cases that are handled in JP courts, and if those are appealed, they might end up in County Court at Law No. 3. That includes landlord-tenant disputes to evictions.
El Paso Matters: What makes you a better candidate than your opponent?
Baeza: Well, I’ve kept my campaign on myself and the reasons why I decided to run. The platform that I continue to run on is just my qualifications. I am the most experienced candidate with almost 13 years of experience. I have the unique experience of representing plaintiffs and defendants across a broad range of cases.
And I have a very strong work ethic, one that was taught to me by my grandmothers and other strong women in my life.
Perez: I’m the only candidate who is a specialist and board-certified in labor and employment by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization; you have to apply and be vetted by this board to even be able to sit for the exam.
Additionally, I’ve had the most civil cases tried to a jury, and I think that’s critical if we’re going to efficiently manage the civil trial court. I can prove I have that significant amount of civil jury trial experience because I’m the only candidate who is part of the American Board of Trial Advocates. You have to be invited to apply to this organization and it’s comprised of plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers, some of the most prominent ones that we have here in town, and you have to have the requisite number of civil cases tried to a jury. It’s a very distinct honor that’s limited to experienced civil trial lawyers.
El Paso Matters: What types of civil cases have you worked on?
Baeza: When I say I have a broad range of experience, I really mean a broad range. I’ve handled personal injury cases on the plaintiffs’ side and on the defense side; I’ve handled a will contest case. I’ve handled breach of contract cases, construction law cases, wrongful death cases, breach of fiduciary cases, Deceptive Trade Practices cases, fraud cases and medical malpractice cases.
Perez: With my board certification, I have a heavy labor and employment docket, but also a lot of personal injury cases. And the beauty about my experience here at the law firm is that it has allowed me to work with many great lawyers who handle a different variety of cases. Throughout my career, I’ve also handled commercial litigation, contract disputes, and medical malpractice cases.
El Paso Matters: What else do you want to highlight about yourself to voters?
Baeza: I have well-balanced experience as an attorney because of the fact that I’ve represented plaintiffs and defendants, which is somewhat unusual for civil attorneys. So aside from my well-balanced experience and my strong work ethic, I think I have the demeanor and character to serve as a judge. And I also come from a family that values public service. I’m proud of my family members who serve in the military and who’ve done other things to serve our community.
Perez: I have the qualifications and the experience to be day-one ready for this court. And I think that is very significant because of the COVID backlog. To overcome that backlog, people and litigants who are waiting for their day in trial, lawyers who are waiting for their case to be tried, need a judge who understands the issues that arise during a jury trial. Because I’ve lived through (civil trials), I actually know what can happen and how to handle them while still being impartial.