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In Texas, Black women judges are fighting legal challenges to their candidacy

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The spotlight is on the presidential primary this Super Tuesday, but voters in many states will also face decisions in local races. In Houston, Texas, that means voting for district court judges. Erica Hughes was first elected in 2018, part of a record number of Black women to take seats on the bench there. They made national headlines as the Houston 19 and Black Girl Magic.

ERICA HUGHES: Texas has about 100 different positions on the ballot, so for people to actually go all the way down the ballot and check our names - because judges are usually last on the ballot - it was very significant.

RASCOE: Now she and other Black women running for judgeships in Houston are facing legal challenges to even get on the ballot.

HUGHES: There was a challenge to have me removed before the ballots were printed, and so I have been to the trial court level, to the Court of Appeals level and then all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

RASCOE: The challenge against Hughes stems from a new Texas law that passed with bipartisan support.

HUGHES: I never thought, though, that it would be used as a weapon to eliminate or remove candidates or attempt to remove candidates from the ballot. I don't think the legislature intended that either.

RASCOE: It requires additional qualifications for judges, qualifications that candidates like Hughes list when they fill out paperwork to be on the ballot.

HUGHES: When I ran in 2018, the application was completely different, and the legislature decided the qualifications were too low, so they increased the minimum years that an attorney needs to practice before they can run for judge. They also added additional questions, whether - if you had board specializations. So now you have to go in and complete this information unless you're the actual sitting judge. And so it is an incumbent-friendly law where they really don't have to fill out the application, but individuals or everyone else does have to fill in these spots. And so you can scrutinize what an individual writes and say maybe they are not qualified, or, in my case, it says that I had 102 signatures that were forged for me to be on the ballot.

RASCOE: So you need a certain amount of signatures to be able to get on the ballot, and they're saying that some of those signatures were falsified in your case. That's their challenge.

HUGHES: Correct, because they couldn't really challenge me on the experience part because I've been a judge in county criminal court. I've been a veterans court judge. I've been appointed by the Biden administration under Attorney General Merrick Garland as an immigration judge. But this is another tactic or a way to get in court.

RASCOE: Where are these challenges coming from? Like, who is bringing these challenges and then going ahead and bringing lawsuits?

HUGHES: The individuals who don't want to lose their seat or be removed from their seat.

RASCOE: The incumbent judges - basically the people who you are running against - are the people who are bringing the challenges.

HUGHES: Exactly.

RASCOE: Can I ask you, do you know how these challenges are being funded? I would imagine lawsuits require money.

HUGHES: The money comes from their campaign fundraising and individuals who have cases in their courts. These are civil courts that we're being challenged by. So these are where multimillion-dollar lawsuits and billion-dollar lawsuits are had.

RASCOE: The lawsuit against Erica Hughes comes from her opponent, incumbent Judge Mike Engelhart. Like Hughes, he's running as a Democrat. And we should note that Engelhart's lawsuit alleges that Hughes' application includes over 500 forged signatures, and that 102 signatures lacked necessary information. Judge Engelhart wrote in a statement to NPR that these allegations, quote, "are supported by expert testimony and an admission of wrongdoing by one of Judge Hughes' signature gatherers." He added, quote, "Both Judge Hughes and I accept contributions from attorneys who practice in the civil district courts. That is both legal and common practice in Texas judicial campaigns." For her part, Judge Hughes says candidates are challenged all the time, but that doesn't mean they get taken to court. She feels singled out because she's facing a lawsuit, as are two other Black women campaigning for judgeships in Houston's Harris County courts.

How has your life been impacted by this lawsuit?

HUGHES: Well, I didn't think that in 2024 this is something that I would face. I've come from Oak Cliff, Texas. It's not above the poverty line. I've done everything right from that point to this point. I've served this country honorably in the military. I went to Prairie View undergrad and got an engineering degree. I went to law school. I ran with the Houston 19, and we won, and I was picked to be appointed to the immigration bench. So everything that I've done right is now being challenged. You can Google forever, or research. This lawsuit is going to come up. It's going to say I had 102 signatures forged, which by the way is 102 felonies. So now I'm in a system that I fought to protect. I've spent an excessive amount of money defending myself with an attorney. It's been a lot of late nights, a lot of anxiety, with the possibility of being removed in a country that I have served and represented and done the right things in and that says if you do the right things, you also can have this American dream. Well, where is the dream now?

RASCOE: Your case is still playing out, but the primary is approaching quickly, March 5. What happens next?

HUGHES: Right now the goal is to win the race. Let democracy prevail and not the tactics of anyone who is trying to change the narrative or who is trying to suppress voters in Texas. If I'm the winner of that election, I'm going to be happy. If I'm not the winner of that election and my opponent wins, then I'll support what the people decide because it is a bench that belongs to the people.

RASCOE: That's Judge Erica Hughes, candidate for election to Harris County Civil District Court. Thank you so much for joining us.

HUGHES: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.