Last November's midterm elections unleashed a blue political wave throughout Bexar County, including its judicial benches. Several Republican judges were unseated, and the Democratic victors were sworn in on New Year's Day.
The Bexar County Commissioners courtroom is packed with friends and family Tuesday, as 43-year-old Mary Lou Alvarez is sworn in as a judge for the 45th District Court.
This is the first time Alvarez will sit on the bench. She says her court will handle mostly family cases.
“My goal has always been to help people and I think as a judge you can help the most people because they're there before you,” she said. “I ran on a promise of justice without exception — without exception to class or ethnicity or gender, and that's what that's what I intend to do.”
Alvarez defeated incumbent Republican Stephani Walsh with 57 percent of the vote. She was one of over two dozen Democrats who won almost all judicial and countywide seats. Alvarez is sure why she and so many other Democrats were swept into office.
The vote for change was clear,” she said. “In what was happening in the past, Bexar County as a community wanted something different. And so now we have something different and I think that's going to be a positive impact.”
Judges in Texas run and are elected via party affiliation. In 2018, Bexar County had 15 district court races on the midterm ballot. Henry Flores, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University, said nine of those district court races were contested and “all of them won by Democrats.” Five of the uncontested seats were held by Republicans and one was an uncontested Democrat.
There was a similar result in the 15 Bexar County Courts at Law and two probate court races. Democrats won 15 of those 17, and two Republicans won uncontested.
“Those uncontested Republicans were lucky that nobody filed against them or else they might have lost as well,” he said.
Midterm elections often see lower turnout than presidential elections. 2010 was a midterm year, that’s when the tea party movement started and Republicans saw massive gains nationally and in local elections like Bexar County’s judicial races.
Flores said the 2018 sweep was nothing like he’s ever seen before and that it was likely motivated by support for Beto O’Rourke’s senate run, among other factors.
“There was a combination of energy and excitement behind O’Rourke's supporters and a little bit of anger at President Trump driving the election,” Flores said.
Straight-ticket voting might have also played a factor. Flores said in this election, he saw more Latinas than ever elected as judges.
Judge Mary Lou Alvarez said the Democrat’s candidate pool simply had more diversity than on the Republican side.
“Our community wants elected representatives and wants people that they trust that represent the community in total,” she said.
Monica Alcantara, chair of the Bexar County Democratic Party, agreed with Alvarez.
“There have been articles out there where a lot of ... former Republican judges had stated that, you know, with all the Democrats kind of taking the sweep, you know it was going to hurt our community and I feel quite the opposite,” Alcantara said. “I believe it strengthens our community only because I believe that the values that our Democratic candidates hold are more in line with our community.”
Henry Flores says he’s unsure of the impact of having more Democratic judges on the bench because a judge’s ideological orientation may only come into consideration occasionally when managing the courtroom and rules of law.
“Being a good judge in that regards doesn't depend upon whether you're Republican or Democratic judge,” he said. “You know partisanship doesn't play in that area. Your ability to manage and be a good judicial manager and again a good rational thinker and a good person of temperament is really the characteristics that make you a good judge.”
The judges installed this week serve for four years and are up for re-election in 2022. Judges in other Bexar County courts will also be up for election in 2020.