A Gov. Greg Abbott appointee is seeking a second shot at being elected to the state’s West Texas appeals court after voters rejected his election bid two years earlier.
Republican Jeffrey Alley, the current Place 2 Justice on the 8th Court of Appeals, is hoping to secure a full six-year term this November, having been re-appointed in December 2020 to fill the remaining two years of retired Justice Ann McClure’s term.
Challenging Alley is Lisa Soto, who spent handily to be the Democratic nominee for a seat on a court that in the past has proven to be friendlier for Democrats who have beaten GOP-appointees several times.
Both candidates, in interviews, were reticent to criticize their opponent, instead speaking highly of one another. But they maintain that they are each best suited for the position, which they say demands someone diligent and research-focused.
The El Paso-based 8th Court of Appeals reviews civil and criminal legal appeals from lower county and state trial courts in 17 West Texas counties.
“This is a technically demanding public service job,” Alley, 62, said. “You have to understand each area of law, and make a correct decision under the law.”
He said his experience in sitting in on oil and gas, property cases, and civil and criminal appeals before the court gives him an edge, since he has a broad range of knowledge and isn’t limited by speciality.
The governor first appointed Alley to the court in 2019 to fill the remainder of retiring Justice Guadalupe Rivera’s term. Alley had previously spent five years working as a staff attorney for Justice McClure. Before, he was in private practice in El Paso for three decades.
Soto, 50, said her legal acumen and rigor qualify her for the position.
“You have to be a real nerd in this position,” she said. “You enjoy having your head buried in the books.”
Since 2020, Soto has worked as a contract attorney for the court where she was tasked with researching specific cases assigned to her by the appeals court. She has practiced civil law since 1997 in both California and Texas.
In California, Soto was counsel for public entities such as San Mateo County, which included representing the Ravenswood City School District in a 1997 class action lawsuit when students with disabilities sued the district for violating their civil rights. She started with the University of Texas at El Paso in 2008 as a professor of practice, while also doing arbitration on labor matters as counsel for Austin based-law firm Brim Arnett and Robinett.
“I really do think I have the ability to listen fully and fairly and just evaluate what’s before me,” she said. “I can evaluate the law as it stands at the time, the facts of the case, the record at the lower court and the standards of review.”
Attorneys voting in the local and state bar association polls ahead of the March primaries were split in their endorsement, with Alley winning a majority of El Paso Bar Association votes and attorneys in the Texas State Bar supporting Soto.
Alley, who was uncontested in the primary, acknowledged that he’s at a disadvantage given his party affiliation, but said he hopes to see a bigger share of Republican votes in El Paso County due to issues at the national level “such as inflation.”
When he ran for the Chief Justice seat on the 8th Court of Appeals in November 2020, he lost to Democrat Yvonne Rodriguez by approximately 85,000 votes overall, earning about 31% of the vote in El Paso, which is the largest county in the court of appeals’ district. Historically, El Paso voters lean heavily Democratic, with up to 70% of the voters voting for the Democrat in most party elections.
“If (the vote) is closer in El Paso, like 45-55% Republican and Democratic split, I’ll have a chance, given what’s likely to happen in the other counties,” Alley said of the smaller counties like Hudspeth that vote Republican. “There’s some method to the madness.”
A major issue plaguing the 8th Court of Appeals has been its case backlog, which existed even before the pandemic brought hearings to a standstill.
Alley says the court “has made good strides” to reduce the backlog, which he credits to “civility amongst the judges and stability among the staff.” Still, he acknowledged that any absence on the court hobbles its ability to create opinions. Texas requires at least three justices to hear an appeal, and the 8th Court is one of five appeals courts with just three justices.
Soto said she did not have criticisms of the Alley or the court directly regarding the backlog, but said she would seek agreed-upon deadlines for opinion responses from the other justices to push for more efficiency.
Between July and October, Soto outraised Alley in campaign donations by two-to-one, bringing in close to $22,300 from 43 donors. The largest donation of $2,500 came from Joseph Soto, her brother, but the majority were from local lawyers and law firms.
During the same period, Alley received $11,900, most of which came from two Austin-based political action committees with a history of supporting Republicans: Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC and the Judicial Fairness PAC.
Former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo and mediator Chris Antcliff, who former Gov. Rick Perry appointed to the 8th Court, donated to Alley’s campaign during an earlier reporting period.
Alley and Soto said while campaigning across the judicial district is challenging, the position comes with its own burden.
“I feel a great weight of responsibility, more than anything,” Soto said. “Aside from removing myself from an advocacy rule and stepping into an impartial judicial role is the weight all these decisions have on West Texas.”
Alley said beyond deciding case law for Texas, it’s also people’s lives at stake.
“Those decisions weigh heavily on me,” Alley said. “When God gives you 60, 70 years of life on this planet, and if you have to spend any of that in prison — those people’s fortunes weigh heavily on me.”
Early voting for the Nov. 8 election runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4.