By ADAM RUSSELL, email@example.com
Candidates in two contested Republican Primary races shared their perspectives on the offices they seek and a few jabs during a Smith County Republican Club debate Thursday night.
More than 75 people, including elected officials, other candidates and club members, attended the forum at Traditions Restaurant between incumbent District Attorney Matt Bingham and challenger Austin Reeve Jackson and 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark and challenger John Jarvis.
Jackson and Bingham shared political barbs early and often. Bingham, 47, pointed to Jackson’s past votes in Democratic primaries as an indication of his challenger’s political affiliation. Jackson defended the votes as supportive of a worthy candidate in a primary battle and said he has personally worked on and supported Republican causes and has never done so for Democrats.
Jackson, 33, said Bingham’s office is inefficient and has tested the bounds of prosecutorial ethics. He noted the reversal of cases known as the “Mineola Swingers,” because prosecutors under Bingham did not disclose evidence that may have helped their defense.
“Mistakes were made,” he said. “This office has been criticized for poor ethical standards.”
Bingham said he regrets the mistake made by his office but that it has successfully prosecuted and garnered pleas in thousands of cases.
“This office is ethical,” he said. “We play by the rules and seek justice.”
Jackson said the office could be run more efficiently and work better with law enforcement. He said the jail expansion would not have been necessary if the district attorney’s office disposed cases quicker.
Bingham said he doesn’t think there is a more fiscally conservative district attorney’s office in the state and he uses seizure funds to support law enforcement with equipment and return budgeted dollars to county coffers. He said his office had decreased spending $751,000 since taking office.
He said his office also efficiently moves cases through the grand jury process.
Bingham said he doesn’t set defendant bonds, which determines whether defendants sit in jail or are released, or trial schedules.
Jackson said he has been a defender, a prosecutor and is a top rated criminal trial attorney. He said he has the experience necessary to serve and that his office would seek justice.
“We’re not going to mishandle cases,” he said. “We’ll be better prepared and more concerned about justice for all rather than moving cases.”
Bingham said there are 10 pending capital murder trials in Smith County and asked those in attendance whether they would want a prosecutor with 27 murder and capital murder trials under their belt or Jackson, who has not prosecuted one.
“I don’t like people who prey on the weak,” Bingham said. “I like to fight for people who don’t have a voice.”
The 321st court’s budget overruns and handling difficult family cases were the focus of discussion between Judge Clark and Jarvis.
Judge Clark served as judge for 15 years and handles family court cases such as divorces, child custody matters and removals when there is alleged neglect or abuse.
Jarvis, 46, a Tyler native, began his career as a certified public accountant but has practiced law for 17 years and has been active in all Smith County courts, including family courts.
He said he can use his accounting and attorney expertise as an asset to keep the court’s budget in line.
In June, the commissioners court, which monitors the county budget put Judge Clark on notice they would not pay non-contracted attorneys after July 18.
The action followed two budget transfers equaling $350,000 since early May to pay attorney fees associated with Child Protective Service removals. The court’s 2013 budget for attorneys’ fees was $732,000.
State law requires children be assigned legal representation. Parents who meet indigent defense requirements also are mandated to receive representation.
About 360 children had pending cases in the court at the time.
Judge Clark said the court experienced a “tsunami” of cases and that the court’s nine contracted attorneys, who are paid $6,500 a month, were overwhelmed.
Jarvis said attorneys knew what the job paid and that they should consider it a full-time job if they receive $78,000 a year. He noted one non-contract attorney (non-contract attorney’s were paid $75 per hour to handle cases) received $84,000 for services and that it would have been more cost effective to sign them to a standard contract.
“Attorneys have a lot of work, but they can do more,” he said. “They need to know it’s a full-time job and the court needs to adhere to its budget.”
Judge Clark said the problem is unfunded state and federal mandates, such as attorney visitation requirements and that attorneys are doing more. She had set a 40 case-per attorney cap so that children and indigent parents would receive proper representation but that the nine contract attorneys are handling almost 60 cases each.
She said she has been negotiating with Smith County attorneys for pro bono representation for infants to lessen the burden on contract attorneys and taxpayers.
Moderator and club president David Stein noted the importance of the Republican primaries because the March election will decide who takes the position.