Candidates for DA, District Judge square off in debate

Published on Thursday, 20 February 2014 23:32 - Written by Betty Waters

Candidates for Smith County district attorney and judge of the 321st district court squared off during debates Thursday at Tyler Junior College.

TJC students in criminal justice, paralegal and public administration programs asked the candidates questions in the Apache Rooms of Rogers Student Center. Students and faculty members were moderators.

The district attorney’s race pits incumbent Matt Bingham, who became district attorney in 2003 after serving as assistant district attorney, and challenger Austin Reeve Jackson, of Lindale, who has prosecutorial experience in Gregg County and is double-board certified in criminal and appellate law.

Facing off for judge of the 321st family court are incumbent Carole Clark, who has served as judge 16 years, and John Jarvis, a Tyler attorney who has practiced law 17 years and is a certified public accountant.

Jarvis, citing his experience as an attorney and his views, asserted it is time for a change in the judge. Rebutting Judge’s Clark’s claim that the family court is a special court, Jarvis said every county in the state deals with family law.

As far as the court’s budget, Jarvis said students live on a budget and asked how it would work out if they spent more. Jarvis charged that the judge exceeded her budget four of the past five years by about $645,000.

Adoptions aren’t going to stop in this county if the court budget is met and protection of children is not going to stop, Jarvis said. What will stop is the waste of taxpayers’ money, Jarvis said.

Judge Clark said her budget had been in the black several years, but the past two years were difficult due to an increase in cases. Her caseload went up in six months from an average of 220 children plus their parents to 341 children plus their parents, which cost more money, she said.

The law says the judge must appoint lawyers and pay a reasonable fee, which Judge Clark said she did and kept county officials informed. A program she instituted to lower the budget has now worked and the number of children is now down to 255, Judge Clark said.

The state did not provide money for carrying out the law requiring appointment of attorneys, Judge Clark said. Throughout the years, she has instituted a number of programs to help families in crisis and her future goal is to begin an assessment center for foster children, Judge Clark said.

In the debate between district attorney candidates, Jackson said there are issues affecting the community stemming from the way the district attorney manages his budget and handles his cases.

The district attorney has increased his budget 49 percent during the past 10 years, which is not acceptable, Jackson said, but he said he has increased profits in his law firm every year by cutting costs.

While costs of the district attorney’s office have gone up, there is not a return on the investment due to a high rate of cases being reversed, Jackson said. There are convictions but cases are being reversed on appeal, he added, resulting in guilty people being back on the streets.

Bingham said Jackson’s comments were misleading. Throughout 10 years, there have been increments where the budget may increase $60,000 year to year or $80,000 but what Jackson did not tell, Bingham said, is that throughout the years it has increased in increments of $1,067,000, but the office has given back $1.448 million. During the 10 years, the district attorney’s office has given back $381,000 that it didn’t spend, Bingham.

In addition, Bingham said, the district attorney’s office has been very aggressive in seizing money from criminals during the past 10 years, giving more than $500,000 back this year alone to law enforcement to buy equipment, lessening the burden on taxpayers.

“I’ve been commended by the commissioners court for our vigilance and fiscal responsibility,” Bingham said.

Bingham cited his years of experience as district attorney, saying he has tried 150 felony cases and 27 murder and capital murder cases. He claimed Jackson has never tried one and doesn’t have experience.

Responding to Jackson’s charge about convictions being reversed, Bingham said the district attorney’s office gets blamed for every reversal even though it may be because of something a judge did.