In Conversation with the Sisters in Law
by Sisters in Law
October 12, 2020
Can you describe what the Sisters in Law is and what your goals are?
Lakesha Smith: We are six African American female attorneys who decided to fill a gap in our community — the gap being the absence of African American female representation in our Tarrant County district courts.
In Tarrant County, we have never elected an African American female to a criminal district court or civil district court. The only African American female we've ever elected in Tarrant County was Maryellen Hicks, a Sister in Law, to a family court in 1981where she served for ten years. Judge Hicks was the first and the last African American female to serve at the district level in Tarrant County. We are ready to add to that list.
Photo via Maryellen Hicks
We value diversity and feel it is critical to create a more diverse judiciary in Tarrant County, especially considering we have such a diverse population. The county is no longer a majority-majority county, it is a minority-majority county. We need more diversity to reflect the makeup of our community and to ensure we have diversity of thought and experiences in our courts.
There are six of us and together we make up the Sisters in Law. We’re excited about what we offer Tarrant County as a whole.
The Sisters in Law’s story is simple, we saw a need, we stepped up to fill that need, and now we are judicial candidates running for office who believe in being the change we wish to see.
What positions are you each running for?
Lakesha Smith: Karen Williams and I are running for criminal court in the district. Karen is the candidate for criminal district court number 2 and I am the candidate for the 213th district court. Delonia Watson is running for justice for Second Court of Appeals, Place 6. Everyone else is running as a candidate for civil district courts: Alisha Darden is running for the 153rd, Valerie Baston is running for the 342nd, and Maryellen Hicks is running for the 348th.
What has the campaigning process been like?
Valerie Baston: I'm not going to lie. It's been very difficult to campaign during this global pandemic. We've been relying on social media and on tapping into our networks and organizations. We do try to get to events that observe CDC guidelines so we can meet people and let them know we're running. We want people to know who we are and what our platform is about because it is so important that people know that they have a choice in this election. Normally in Tarrant County, you don't see anyone who isn’t a Republican running for office.
But, Tarrant County is a diverse county. The state of Texas is a diverse state. We have different ethnicities, different races, different religions, and gender identities. I feel like it's time for Tarrant County to have a judiciary that actually reflects the community.
The RNC is dumping money into Texas. What do you think that indicates?
Valeria Baston: When Beto ran for US Senate, Tarrant County went blue. Beto came to Tarrant County, put in the work, and as a result, Tarrant County went blue.
Tarrant County is one of the last urban area strongholds for the Republicans, and when they saw what happened in 2018, it scared them.
Right now, the polls are showing that Trump and Biden are very close. Republicans are concerned and they are right to be concerned. This administration has not taken COVID seriously here in Texas. Our local Republican leadership hasn't taken COVID seriously. Republicans understand that even their base doesn't like where we have been going as a state, and as a nation.
Republicans don't want to lose Texas because we have a lot of electoral votes. They don't want to lose the House or the Senate seats in the Texas Congress, and they definitely don't want to lose the judiciary.
Lakesha Smith: In addition, the governor is up for election in the next cycle. As Valerie said, Beto won Tarrant County, which was huge. Alarm bells are going off because Democrats are threatening their power structure.
The saying goes, if Tarrant County goes blue, all of Texas will go with it.
Governor Abbott has an interest in maintaining power in places like Tarrant County. When you see a presidential race pouring money into Texas, you know the Republicans are worried — and that is exactly what we are seeing.
The appointment process here is a testament to the existing power structure. Right now, Republican judges step down early, so that Governor Greg Abbott's power is triggered and he can appoint the judge. Then, when these judges eventually go on the ballot in subsequent races, they are on the ballot as an incumbent. It gives them an advantage.
Maryellen Hicks: There are no Democrats on a district-level court, which is the highest trial court, or the appellate court that Ms. Watson is running for.
Right now, the courts are packed with Republicans, many of whom are members of the Federalist Society or are closely aligned with the Tea Party.
There is a strong feeling, particularly among the African American and Latino communities, that these courthouses are not for us. There's no justice. It is a horrible environment.
Are you worried about voter suppression on election day? Texas notoriously has had horrible gerrymandering and broad strokes of voter suppression that are very obvious, but are there things in Tarrant County specifically that you are looking for?
Karen Williams: We are definitely worried about voter suppression here. We are constantly reminding people to register to vote, and pushing people to vote in the early time period. We have two weeks of early voting prior to the general election, so we are encouraging people to go out and vote early.
We encourage early voting because we have seen election day situations where the lines last for hours and hours. We have seen polling places where the computers aren't set up.
We want to make sure that people get out and vote early. And in any case, whatever day that they choose to go and vote, we want people to know not to expect to go in and get out in five minutes. Be prepared to take some time so that if you do have to wait, you can wait.
How do you make sure people feel like they understand their voting rights? And what do you want to see from the media, in particular?
Delonia Watson: The Biden campaign has hundreds of attorneys ready to make sure that every voter's vote matters, but it is a very real threat that some of these issues will go to court. We have to make sure that we have a judiciary that is independent, and will not permit their ideology to control the law, but instead will apply the law fairly.
Lakesha Smith: In terms of the media, I don't think it's so much the media’s responsibility to take a side as to who's right, and who's wrong. But right now, I think it's very important to get out voter education and allow the voters to understand the issues that impact leadership in their local elections. When people hear about these things, they can come to their own conclusion about how the government is usurping the rights of the voters. Voters need to understand how the government has found a way to manipulate elections.
Are you paying attention to polling? Can you see where voter registration and enthusiasm, especially for nonwhite voters, stands in Tarrant County?
Lakesha Smith: Texas has registered over 2 million new voters. I can't speak to the demographics, but I feel confident based on conversations with voters that there’s enthusiasm to vote. Our base has been energized, unfortunately by the actions of the president. People are encouraged to get out and vote.
Delonia Watson: We are seeing a significant amount of excitement from people. People are galvanized. People are posting things about us, people are passing out flyers for us. People are excited about seeing a judiciary that looks more and more like them.
Karen Williams: Voter registration and voter turnout are up this year from the last presidential election. The Democratic vote and voter turnout were up by 14% in our primaries this year. In Tarrant County, the Democrats out voted the Republicans. Since the primary, there has been a lot more voter registration and the polls are saying that a lot more people are planning to vote Democratic. It goes beyond the people we are talking to.
It can be easy to talk to the people who are excited, and they get you excited, and you think the whole world is thinking this way, but there are hardcore statistics that tell us that voter registration is up.