Gay Democrats say system will be more fair; Log Cabin spokesman says many qualified, experienced judges lost their jobs on Nov. 7
Of all the changes that swept in with the Democrat victory in Dallas on Nov. 7, perhaps the most profound transformation occurred in that oft-forgotten branch of government, the justice system, some gay activists believe. In nearly every judicial race with a Democrat candidate, the Democrats won.
“The openness and tolerance we’ll have in front of the court with Democrats in the judicial system will be very positive, particularly in the family courts,” said Shannon Bailey, president of Texas Stonewall Democrats.
As the interpretive agents of the law, judges wield an arguable amount of power. Whether the issue is changing name and gender on identification papers, seeking refuge from a violent partner or securing the right to a family, the courts will influence the outcome of the case, with long-lasting effects.
Probate courts determine the distribution of wealth through wills. The civil courts decide monetary damages in lawsuits. Amongst their many duties, family courts choose who is fit to parent, and the criminal courts establish sentences for criminals found guilty.
“The general attitude about the court system is that you never know when it will come upon you, so you want to know that you will be treated fairly,” Bailey said.
Some first-time perpetrators of violations such as public lewdness have been ordered to register as sex offenders, according to Bailey. Although the individuals had broken the law in some way, “these aren’t hardened criminals or sexual predators,” he said.
As a class A misdemeanor, punishments for public lewdness include fines not to exceed $4,000 and up to one year imprisonment. It is not considered to be a sexual crime like child pornography or prostitution. These perpetrators were doubly judged for their “abnormal” offenses when forced to register as sex offenders, Bailey said, adding that he believes this sort of discrimination will not be a hurdle in the upcoming years.
“These are judges who have an understanding of who we are,” Bailey said. “They know that we’re not bad people.”
Bailey also suspects that hate crimes will be easier to prosecute with the new judges on the bench. “With the group we have now, it will be easier to get recognition,” he said.
In order to guarantee an endorsement of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, candidates completed a questionnaire. Candidates stated whether they had voted for Proposition 2, the Texas Marriage Amendment.
D’metria Benson, who won the No. 1 seat in the County Court at Law, was the only judicial candidate who had voted for the amendment. She did not receive endorsement from Stonewall.
Judith Kaufman, with the Stonewall Democrats of Collin County, participated with the Dallas Stonewall group in its efforts to get out the vote. Although the GOP dominated Collin County elections again this year, Kaufman reported a dramatic increase in Democratic voters.
“What SDD [Stonewall Democrats of Dallas] did was amazing and certainly an encouragement and model for SDCC,” she said. “I do believe that any candidate for anything in Dallas County will need the endorsement of the SDD. That will place LGBT-friendly people in public office and goes a long way toward what we all want equal civil rights for all citizens.”
Although the Democratic Party is confident that the victory in Dallas will bring positive transformation, citizens on all sides of the political spectrum plan to keep a close eye on their leaders.
“They need to perform and hold themselves to higher ethical standards, so that we have no doubt,” said Bailey. “The culture of corruption that has been exposed in the Republicans people are tired of that.”
“This took everybody by surprise,” said Brian Welker, who helps lead the Log Cabin Republicans with his partner, Carla Halbrook. He reported the impression that Democrats were just finding people to run as experience for later elections.
“I don’t know how prepared they are to move forward,” he said.
While the Democrats ushered in a wave of change, many experienced judges are out of work due to the election outcomes.
“With the straight-party voting, a lot of very qualified and experienced people lost their jobs,” said Welker. “We’ve lost literally hundreds of years of experience.”
Justice, traditionally associated with fairness, is ideally achieved through indifference to influence, as portrayed by the famous blindfolded Lady Justice statue. For this reason, Welker thinks that a good judge will say that sexual orientation doesn’t matter.
“It’s not as much of a political thing, or a gay-friendly thing,” he said. “If they’re impartial, then they won’t consider whether you’re gay or not in the first place.”
But, as President Bush’s appointment of William Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last year revealed, neutrality does not always top the list of professional qualifications: The 11th Circuit Court was the same court that ruled in 2004 against two gay men pursuing an adoption in Florida.
However, as objectivity remains a difficult status to achieve, both parties could be held culpable for having so-called “activist” judges among their ranks.
Only time will reveal whether the Democrats’ judicial victory in Dallas will positively affect the LGBT community.
“We may not see it outwardly and openly every day, but I think we’ll definitely see a difference,” said Bailey.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, November 17, 2006.