A husband and wife legal team hope to double their chances at ousting a local county civil court judge by running for the seat — both of them, at the same time, in opposing party primaries.
F. Richard Leach, one of two candidates in the Democratic primary for Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1 (the other is George Barnstone), is both married to and law partners with Gloria Cantu Minnick. While Minnick launched her failed 2014 bid for another civil court at law seat as a Democrat, she'll appear on the upcoming primary ballot as a Republican candidate for the same bench her husband's chasing in the Democratic primary.
The good money's on Minnick's race being the more important of the two. For years Republican judges have dominated Harris County's civil courts at law, which hear civil matters ranging from $200 to $200,000 (they also hear cases appealed from municipal and justice of the peace courts). In 2006, for instance, Republican judges swept all seats unopposed. In 2010, Republicans easily won all four benches by a margin of ten points or greater. In 2014, the Houston Chronicle even endorsed Minnick when she ran as a Democrat against County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Linda Storey, who won with 54 percent of the vote; again, Republicans took all county civil courts at law benches that year.
This year Minnick will face the sort-of incumbent in the race. Current judge Clyde Leuchtag was appointed to the county court at law bench after Debra Ibarra Mayfield, a Republican, was tapped by the governor to serve as a district court judge. Leuchtag, who's been a precinct chair for the local Republican Party since the mid-1990s, is obviously the real Republican on the ballot in the primary race, but these are down-ballot contests that don't get much attention.
Leuchtag told us Tuesday that he sees the bench as a way to help people, considering it's the civil court where everyday people are most likely to land — and, perhaps most importantly, where they're most likely to represent themselves without a lawyer. “People can feel overwhelmed and feel like they're not getting a fair deal...this court is a huge opportunity for me to explain the system to them, make sure they know how to navigate it, make them feel comfortable and explain what's going on. It's about making sure they get their day in court.”
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Of the husband-wife team vying for his seat, he said he's not really sure how or if they'd be different, but that from the outside, “It just looks like high drama…It makes it look like they just want a bench, no matter who's on it.”
When reached by phone at his law office Tuesday, Leach was open about the strategy of both him and his wife running as candidates in opposing party primaries. “I'm pretty sure we're the first that have ever done this,” he said (we certainly couldn't find any precedent for it). Generally speaking, it appears they're challenging Leuchtag for two reasons: He wasn't elected by the people, and the majority of his work experience is at the Harris County Attorney's Office (they contend much of it was administrative and that Leuchtag doesn't adequately understand the courtroom; Leuchtag, of course, points to all the trial work he's done both in and out of the county attorney's office). Since he was an interim appointment, the local bar association doesn't have any attorney polling results regarding Leuchtag's court.
What if both Leach and Minnick win their respective primaries and, in the general election, there's a sort-of race between spouses? “We're hoping for that, because, irrespective of who gets the most votes, that court would have a competent judge,” Leach said. “She's running because she's qualified to be judge for that court, and I'm running because I'm qualified for the position. Whoever wins wins.”
Whether voters can distinguish between a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and a true party candidate is always a lingering concern, especially with the scroll-like ballots in Harris County, but Paul Simpson, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, says the party tries its best to educate voters without taking sides — according to its own rules, it can't publicly endorse or favor any candidate in an intra-party race. Simpson wouldn't comment on the Minnick/Leuchtag primary, but said, “I trust the voters more than I trust self-professed party bosses to make the right decision.”