Chris Daniel was kind enough to discuss his campaign for District Clerk. Full disclosure, I practice in the district courts to a minor degree, and in the JP courts some (the District Clerk’s office handles electronic submissions to the JP courts), so this race directly interacts with my law practice. The needless dysfunction with records submission, and in some cases flat out incorrect law – basic concepts such as understanding proper venue – the clerks demonstrate shows the office is in disarray. This level of dysfunction didn’t exist when Chris was in office, and he will be able to correct the issues.
The District Clerk’s Office and Crime
This race is more important than most people realize. The office is sometimes called the Clerk of the Court in other states, and failures in the office have a direct impact on crime in Harris County. Courts rely on the District Clerk’s office for a wide ranging set of responsibilities from bond processing at the beginning of the system, to juries at the end of the system, to the information technology systems that underpin the system. The current incumbent has seen spectacular failures in all areas directly leading to criminals being released to the streets.
Information Technology Failure
Starting with the information technology aspect of the office the system had a catastrophic failure when a technology update went wrong. This resulted in the inability of the courts to process probable cause hearings in a timely manner, and criminals were released as a result of the technology failure. However, the failure wasn’t just limited to the criminal justice system. The outage was so pervasive that the 911 system failed. Think about that. A loved one has a heart attack or a massive stroke. You dial 911, but because of a technology error you can’t summon an ambulance to help your loved one.
The problem was so severe, that five department heads, including three elected democrats, openly criticized the way it was handled. This isn’t partisan republican criticism. This is elected democrats openly criticizing other elected democrats. That’s a sign of how much dysfunction is occurring with the District Clerk’s office – problems that were not there when Chris was in office.
This is a problem that Chris indicated wouldn’t occur under his watch because he would have created a cache database that could have been used as a backup to prevent the shutdown from occurring before trying to upgrade the system. It’s a simple solution that comes from experience, and one that demonstrates that Chris has the foresight and ability to manage the office effectively where the incumbent has failed. Spectacularly. And the failure directly put us all at risk.
The jury system is the backbone of the legal system. Criminals are innocent until proven guilty, and we have a right to a trial by jury. If the jury system is dysfunctional the system grinds and justice is delayed. The incumbent will discuss how she expanded free jury parking. That’s good, but it doesn’t excuse all the problems, and to focus on that issue shows a basic misunderstanding of how to manage the jury process in a county this size.
The jury system in a county this size is going to have hiccups. That can’t be avoided. What can be avoided are self inflicted wounds. Here, too, the incumbent has a history of mismanagement leading to a murder case being declared a mistrial when a jury appreciation program had a speaker that tainted a jury pool, and video of the speaker was placed online. First, the speakers should have been cautioned regarding their presentations. Second, when the presentation occurred someone should have caught that it was improper and not placed the video online.
Another criminal on the street because of inept handling of a basic job function by the District Clerk’s office. Don’t taint the jury pool. It’s a simple, basic, principle of managing juries. Yet, not only did the failure occur, but the improper video was placed online. Sure, it was removed at a later point, but a basic awareness of the potential issue, and guidance to speakers beforehand would have prevented the issue in the first place.
Bond and Data Transmission
The accurate recording and transmission of bond and other information is also a basic job function of the office. (Note: This is a link to a current job opening showing the job duties, it may break after the opening closes.) Even in this simple, ministerial aspect criminals have been inappropriately set free because of problems with the office. A simple, honest, mistake of inaccurate recording of bond let an accused murderer back on the streets.
Again, a basic job duty was not performed correctly. While this is a one off error, it raises some troublesome concerns. Is sex offender status being accurately and timely reported so people can know if sex offenders are living nearby? Is offender information being passed on to the appropriate databases so firearm background checks are appropriately excluding individuals who should be denied firearms? This is something we didn’t have to worry about when Chris was in office, but now can we be certain that information is being timely and accurately transmitted? Each individual mistake is understandable, but in aggregate it raises a question on if the basic functions of the courts being carried out. We all suffer from the dysfunction.
An Office In Regression
In 2018 when the Chronicle endorsed Chris they noted the current incumbent’s “managerial experience in the public and private sector, including service as executive director of Texas PTA and president of North Houston-Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce” and stated, “[n]o doubt that Burgess would make for an excellent district clerk.” This assessment has not aged well. The office is in disarray and has significantly regressed from when Chris was in office. One of Chris’ goals for the office is, “We are going to restore order to the District Clerk office. When you walk into the office you get the best service possible regardless of race, color, or creed.”
Chris noted several changes from when he was in office:
When Chris was in office they had regular event paid for by his personal funds.
Programs like jeans on Friday were eliminated.
Parking in the parking garage was altered to have free parking for jurors at the expense of employee parking. Employees have to park up to 10 blocks away.
Criminal courthouse access is especially problematic.
The changes have led to employee morale issues, and a new, adversarial, mentality has set into the office. The threat to “turn off” web pages in response to Commissioner’s Court criticism is just one example of the regression in the office. This is a stark departure from the kenosis style of leadership Chris exhibited when he was in office, and would doubtless exhibit if returned to office.
When in office Chris personally paid for office functions to increase office morale. He also took deliberate steps to ensure the public was well served by the office. Although not directly a duty of the office, Chris worked with the courts to make sure access to the buildings was efficient. Sometimes that meant screening though different court building security and being escorted to the correct building. The incumbent states court access isn’t her job. Chris found a way to make it work, even though it wasn’t his job.
Chris also implemented a passport program at the county level. This program not only helped speed up obtaining passports, but it was also at no cost to the county. The passport fees generated paid for the program. Again, not his job, but he saw an opportunity to serve the public, and to do so at no cost to the county.
Chris has many endorsements, and some are from surprising sources. A non-exhaustive look at his endorsements shows he in endorsed by:
Mexican Association of Sheriffs Officers, Houston Police Officer’s Union, Constable Ted Heap, Constable Mark Herman, Gary Harrison, Jessy Rodriguez, Ben Mendez, Vicki Cruz (LULAC 2911), Al Martinez Jr. and Sr.
This is a diverse group of endorsements, and, importantly, contains endorsements from important individuals in persuadable democratic areas showing that Chris has appeal across party lines and in areas necessary to win.