Harris County judge wins fight against own party to get name on March primary ballot

HOUSTON – After a legal battle with his own party, a Harris County criminal court judge won the right to put his name back on the ballot for the March primary. Judge George Powell, who presides over the 351st criminal court, also won his party’s lottery to have his name appear first on the ballot.

The ordeal began in December and stems from a mistake over a filing fee.

“I feel let down, I do,” Powell said in reference to his legal battle with the Harris County Democratic Party. “They fought it because they knew they were wrong and they tried to keep me off the ballot.”

The battle started last month with the deadline looming to file for re-election. Powell said he took his application to the Democratic Party offices and asked a worker the cost of the filing fee. Powell said he believed the fee was $2,500 but was told by the worker, who Powell said was there to help candidates get their applications in before the deadline, the cost was $1,500.

“I think he’s in a better position to know, or should be, so I’m going to do what he tells me to do. When I go to Target and they tell me the bill is $20, I don’t give them $40,” said Powell.

The filing fee was actually $2,500. Powell said once the mistake was realized, he wrote another check for $2,500 to make sure everything was covered. However, Powell said party officials later called and told him since the second check came in after the filing deadline, state election code prevented them from accepting his application. This meant Powell’s name would not appear on the ballot in the March primary.

“They fought very hard, I had to go out and get the best attorneys in Houston to fight them,” said Powell.

Attorney Kent Schaffer said he at first thought the matter would be quickly cleared up.

“I thought initially with a phone call we could straighten the problem out because it’s not a problem Judge Powell created,” said Schaffer. “The party had the authority, the ability to fix the problem right then and there, and instead we’re on a three-week journey through the court system before we finally got justice.”

There was a lengthy hearing in civil court to determine the outcome.

“It was a six-and-a-half-hour hearing that was hotly fought because they were trying to keep him off the ballot,” said Schaffer. “They dug their heels in and fought it out and said, ‘no, once the deadline passes, even if we do it intentionally there’s nothing that can be done.’”

Following the hearing, a judge issued a temporary injunction and ordered Powell’s name to be placed on the ballot.

“The court further finds that unless a temporary injunction issues, Powell will suffer irreparable harm because he will be deprived of his right to run in the March 3, 2020 Harris County Democratic Party Primary Election,” the judge’s order read.

Both Schaffer and Powell said they believe the employee who gave the judge the incorrect filing fee made an honest mistake and the two took the party to task for allowing the situation to blossom into a legal battle. Judge Powell said he has his suspicions as to why this happened, but did not elaborate.

“I have no animus toward the party, I won’t rely on them for anything, especially information, but at this point I’m on an island. I’m happy being here though,” said Powell.

The Harris County Democratic Party issued the following statement to KPRC 2.

"The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in. Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.

Nonetheless, the Texas legislature and its current leadership passed laws making it illegal to remedy any mistakes without court invention. In turn, we suggested that Judge Powell take this to court as quickly as possible.

As HCDP Chair Lillie Schechter wrote to Judge Powell when we informed him of our decision to not allow him a place on the ballot ,"Judge Powell, you have served on the bench with great distinction, so it saddens me to take this action, but I can see no alternative. I must follow the law. Perhaps you can get a Court to direct that you be placed on the ballot, but, as I understand the law, I am unable to do so consistent with my duties under the Texas Election Code."

We hope that this matter is resolved and when Democrats take back the Texas House in November, addressing the outdated and cumbersome election code is on their agenda."

KPRC 2 also reached to Powell’s sole opponent in the primary, Natalia Cornelio. She became an intervenor-defendant in the lawsuit. Cornelio is the director for legal affairs for Harris County Precinct 1, which is Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ district.

“I remain focused on why I am running and on pushing for the issues that matter in criminal courts, like promoting community centered justice, bail reform, and a commitment to reducing racial disparities in our justice system,” Cornelio wrote in an email to KPRC 2.

Schaffer said he has been told the Harris County Democratic Party does not plan to appeal the judge’s order.