Legal fight not over in Harris County judicial race

HOUSTON – A legal battle involving a race for the bench in Harris County’s 351st criminal court is not over yet.

Last week incumbent Judge George Powell won a legal dispute against the Democratic Party of Harris County. Now, Judge Powell’s opponent in the upcoming primary has filed an appeal in the case.

“It’s the principle of it,” said Natalia Cornelio, Judge Powell’s opponent in the Democratic primary. “We elect our judges to follow the law, not to violate them and in this case my opponent did not follow the law or even read instructions.”

Cornelio’s assertion is part of a recent legal battle between Judge Powell and the Harris County Democratic Party. The Judge sued his own party; Cornelio then joined her party’s fight against Powell as an intervenor-defendant.

“My fight was not with her, she jumped into the fight and I think now her efforts are only promoting me,” Powell said.

The battle started last month when the judge filed for re-election. Court records show a party-worker, who was helping candidates get their applications in before the deadline, told Powell the wrong amount for the filing fee. Once the mistake was realized, Powell wrote a check for the correct amount. However, party officials told him since the filing deadline passed, state law prevented them from accepting his application.

This meant Judge Powell’s name would not appear on the March primary ballot. Powell sued and won; a Judge ordered the party to put his name on the ballot.

“Judge Powell had a right to rely on the information that was provided by the person who was authorized to give out that information,” attorney Kent Schaffer said in reference to the judge’s ruling.

The party did not appeal the judge’s recent order, but Cornelio filed a petition with 14th Court of Appeals; arguing it was Powell’s responsibility to know the correct filing fee. Cornelio pointed out the filing was obtainable online and on the application.

Schaffer countered by saying filing fees can change so it was proper of Powell to ask a party worker for the information.

“I think it just looks very, very desperate and pathetic,” Powell said of the recent appeal by his opponent.

“I am serious to pursue the fight that a judge who cannot follow the law should not be on the ballot,” Cornelio said. “I don’t see how a judge gets around blaming somebody else for not following the law.”

Cornelio’s appeal noted “time is of the essence” because mail-in ballots are scheduled to be mailed out on Jan. 18.