Voters will choose between two candidates for Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace when early voting begins May 14: a courtroom administrator with nearly three decades of courtroom experience and a jeweler active in local politics.
Missi Walden and Matthew Stringer are on the ballot for the runoff, following a March Republican primary that dwindled down the wide field of seven candidates to two.
Justices of the Peace handle class C misdemeanor cases, like traffic tickets, and small claim civil cases with a jurisdictional limit of $10,000, such as landlord and tenant disputes. They also set bonds, sign arrest warrants and certain search warrants and protective orders and provide marriage licenses.
Walden says her experience in the courtroom will help to run an organized and efficient office. Stringer touts a self-education in the law and goals of a more accountable and efficient office.
There is no Democratic candidate for the position, so whoever wins the runoff is the winner, and could be appointed to the position by the Commissioners’ Court as soon as June.
The seat has been empty since Judge Christopher Clark vacated the position in January to fill the vacant seat of County Court at Law No. 2.
Walden received 1,361 votes in the March primary, about 32 percent of the vote, followed by Stringer, who received 982 votes, about 23 percent of the vote.
But turnout could be far less for the runoff, as they are the only local election on the ballot, and voters may not know all of what a justice of the peace does.
“For a lot of people, they don’t think that the justice of the peace court is that important to them until they have a case that they have to go before them, and then they realize that it is important to them,” she said. “If you have a case where you’re suing somebody for $5,000 or $10,000, that’s important to you.”
Stringer said the jurisdiction of the office reflected the issues important to everyday citizens, and is by design an office that sits close to the people.
Each candidate has questioned their opponent’s qualifications.
Walden, 51, has worked in the legal field in administrative roles for the last 27 years, most recently working as the court coordinator for the 161st District Court of Judge John Smith for the last seven years.
As a court coordinator, Walden said she has been involved in thousands of hearings and trials during her career, giving her an understanding of the trial process and how hearings are supposed to be run.
“That’s experience that nobody else will have and I can go in and start running hearings and know how everything works,” she said.
But Stringer said he has articulated a stronger knowledge of the law during his campaign through his own study of the position, and says he has been civilly involved for a number of years in state legislature.
“They might not be making the headlines, but every individual person that comes in there, if you have a case, it is important to you, and to have somebody on that bench who understands that it’s important to you,” Stringer said.
Stringer described Walden’s job as a court coordinator as secretarial. But Walden said her job gives her the experience to understand the processes of running trials and hearings — something Stringer has no experience in.
“I don’t see how anybody could be an expert in the law without going to law school,” Walden said. “I would never claim to know everything about the law or be an expert in the law, and I know when I go in there, there are going to be things that I have to learn still.”
Whoever is sworn into office as the JP after the runoff will be required to take 80 hours of training, but that training won’t begin until December.
Stringer said he would serve the community by helping to deal with the county’s criminal justice infrastructure, namely the courthouse, which city and county officials are attempting to solve, but Walden said the justice of the peace doesn’t have a say in the issue.
“The justice of the peace doesn’t set any laws or policies,” Walden said. “You can talk to them and give them your opinion, but you really don’t have a say in what ultimately happens.”
While the justice of the peace doesn’t have any say in any matters regarding governing or legislation, Stringer said he would still like to be involved in talking about issues with citizens and relaying them to county commissioners.
“My point is the justice of the peace is a public servant just like every other elected official down at the courthouse,” Stringer said. “And as a judge and a public servant, you have a duty to report back to the people that you work for what you need to do your job.”
One of the big changes Walden said she would like to bring to the justice of the peace court is to make the court system as paperless as possible, something she has already done in the 161st District Court, with a goal of greater transparency and easier access.
Stringer said he was concerned whether the paperless system would be conducive to the nature of the justice court as the people’s court, as most people file without representation.
Previously, Stringer served as a Republican national Delegate in 2012, and served as a Presidential Elector of the Electoral College under the Trump/Pence ticket during the 2016 election.
Walden pointed out her experience in the courtroom.
“The biggest distinction is that I have 27 years of legal experience and I’ve actually worked in the courts and understand the processes of the courts,” Walden said.
Stringer has been endorsed by Gun Owners of America, as well as by Dick Saulsbury, founder of Saulsbury Industries, and Ector County Hospital District board members Brynn Dodd, Don Hallmark and Ben Quiroz.
While Walden said she saw this election was coming and felt she was the most qualified person of those who were running, and said Smith supported her decision to run, so she decided to go for the position.
Stringer said the idea of running for the justice of the peace came after someone close to him asked him to run but declined to say who.
“What really appealed to me is the office sits close to the people at the precinct level, and that it’s an opportunity to truly step up and serve the community,” Stringer said.
Stringer said he would also like to publish an annual accountability report, telling the public how many cases the office filed, what their budget was and how much was spent in a year.
Walden questioned the purpose in doing so when case information and the budget can already be found online.
Stringer said he was also interested in asking commissioners to task a constable with seeking out outstanding warrants, which Stringer said there is a large number of in the justice court, as a way to increase county revenue, but that would rely on commissioner approval.
Stringer also said that the constables don’t really do anything right now, outside of deal with truancy and transport money for the county.
Walden said the county had looked at the idea of adding a warrant officer before, but that it would not bring in as much money as it would cost to be implemented. She also said that it would hinder the jail, which already has an overcrowding problem, and most of the people with these outstanding warrants aren’t hardened criminals.
Stringer said that his proposed idea of instating a constable would allow him to call people with outstanding warrants to try to get them to take care of the fine without being taken to jail.
The runoff election for the position will take place on May 22, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Early voting will begin May 14 and conclude May 18. Whoever wins the runoff will be the de facto winner, as there is no Democratic challenger for the position.
Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Sherwood Kupper said he thinks the residents of a precinct would want a person knowledgeable
in the law sitting on the bench.
“A JP court is intended not to require legal representation, so you would want a judge that handles fairness,” Kupper said.
- What: Justice of the Peace Precinct 2
- How long: Four years.
- Salary: $63,712; auto allowance – $5,050; fringe benefits – $28,578.
- First day of early voting: May 14.
- Last day of early voting: May 18.
- Election Day: May 22.