On Dec. 31, Judge Laura Parker will serve her last day overseeing the 386th Juvenile District Court, the court she helped build and has led since its creation in 1999.
Since then, Parker had been re-elected four times, handling more than 29,000 juvenile cases and presiding over three specialty courts that deal with young victims of sex trafficking, adolescents with mental health issues, and drug-dependent youth in the justice system.
On Election Day last week, Parker was voted out of office and replaced by Arcelia Treviño, a former teacher and private practice attorney who will officially assume her first position as an elected official on Jan. 1, 2017.
Parker, a Republican, knew her job was at stake during this year’s election. The race between Hillary Clinton and president-elect Donald Trump was one of the most divisive in recent history, and Parker feared that national politics would likely have an effect on local partisan elections.
Straight-ticket voting – when constituents vote solely by political party all the way down the ballot – can often mean all the hard work, commitment, long hours, and money down-ballot candidates dedicated to their tenure and campaigning for re-election goes to waste.
That is what Parker, a committed public servant for 17 years, feared most.
“With the unpopularity of Donald Trump in Bexar County, you know, it was concerning,” she said. Parker lost by a 4% margin.
Her concern is shared by many local officials who hold elected office and are committed to and knowledgable about public service, but get swept out of office due to straight-party votes.
District judges, who seldom are household names, are particularly vulnerable. Many voters find themselves guessing inside the voting booth or simply voting by party affiliation, regardless of an incumbent’s established record or the qualifications of the challenger.
“The judicial races are where it has its biggest impact because people don’t always take the time to work their way down an 11-page ballot,” said Sen. José Menéndez (D-26).
Straight-ticket voting is only allowed in nine other U.S. states besides Texas, and its popularity has declined over time, according to the Washington Post. A number of everyday citizens as well as insiders, such as Menéndez, say such voting patterns unjustly put partisan preference over qualifications.
“It’s unfortunate because, personally, I don’t believe judges should be voted on (on) partisan ballots anyway. They’re supposed to be impartial and judges that are going to be judges for everyone,” he said. “They’re going to be judging things on merit, on facts, and evidence, not based on their partisan nature.
“It sets up a scenario where good judges based on whichever party or year they’re up for election could be swept out based on nothing that they did wrong.”
Parker doesn’t doubt Treviño can carry out her legacy, she said, but she hopes that she maintains the same amount of passion and commitment to the court that has been at the forefront of her career.
Treviño, whose campaign focused on “protect(ing) our youth through justice, education, and rehabilitation” has more than 10 years of experience in practicing family and immigration law.
Parker isn’t driven by politics. She was appointed to the position when it was created. Running for re-election every four years has been the least favorite aspect of her work. It’s especially frustrating, she said, since her political affiliation with the GOP has little or nothing to do with her day-to-day work at the courthouse.
“It’s a huge loss in this community that she didn’t win, and it’s such a sad day when the partisan elections really take control of what’s going on in the courthouse,” said 289th Juvenile District Court Judge Daphne Previti Austin, who worked with Parker earlier in their respective careers when both were prosecutors in the district attorney’s office.
Parker has always been regarded as a leader, both in the courthouse and in the community, Austin said. Parker has served on the executive board of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, as the local administrative judge for the Bexar County District Courts, and is the chair of the Bexar County Juvenile Board.
She also started the three specialty courts that have provided much-needed assistance to at-risk youth and have cut back the County’s incarceration costs, Austin said.
Austin and 436th Juvenile District Court Judge Lisa Jarrett, Parker said, will take over the courts when she leaves at the end of the year.
The Crossroads Girls Mental Health Court, which Parker started in 2009, was one of five programs in the country to receive the 2016 National Criminal Justice Association Outstanding Criminal Justice Program in the western region of the United States.
Her influence in the local community is just as strong, Austin said, as Parker serves on the board of directors for Communities in Schools, the ChildSafe Advisory Council, and also is involved with SA 100 and Impact San Antonio.
“The judge’s job is to come in and handle the docket everyday from 8-5, but it’s really much larger than that,” Austin said. “We go out into the community. We care about the kids who come in front of us.
“She’s done a lot of things above and beyond.”
Parker said she will welcome Treviño to the bench and help make the transition as smooth as possible, not only for the new 386th court judge but for all of the youth she will oversee.
She doesn’t know exactly what she will do after she officially leaves her bench at the end of the year, but imagines she will take some time to decompress and not rush to find another job. She’ll probably sign up to be a visiting judge, she said.
Looking back on her time in the juvenile justice system, Parker said her work was a combination of true passion and obligation for helping at-risk youth.
“It’s been an opportunity,” she said “But I also feel like it was really my responsibility.”
Treviño did not respond to multiple efforts to interview her.