BUT JP MUÑOZ SAYS HE'S NOT ONE OF THEM
By G. Romero Wendorf
For some politicians, even after the election is over, it isn’t quite over, because people are still throwing fiery darts their way.
Such is the case with Hidalgo County Precinct 2, Place 2, Justice of the Peace Jaime “Jerry” Muñoz who’s only been in officefor a little more than six months. And the next Democratic Primary is still more than 2.5 years away. So why are some people still attacking him now by claiming he’s not doing his job as JP? Spending too much time away from the justice court so he can work at his own law practice?
In recent weeks, The Advance News Journal has heard from a handful of people who say he’s away from his JP’s office too much because he’s still doing too much legal work on behalf of his own law firm, which he promised he would forego if elected to the public bench.
“Wow,” was the first thin Muñoz said when told what his critics were claiming. “I’m not sure how somebody can say that about my office I shut down (my own) law office. It’s closed and has a for-sale sign on it, and I left a majority of my legal work. My JP’s office is the only one open during the lunch hour, and it’s open until 5:15. And I’m in my (justice of the peace) office every day at 8. We schedule trials every day of the week.”
Muñoz then asks why rumors, false innuendoes, are given so much credence by the media?
“Why are anonymous sources given so much credibility,” he asked, obviously irked that someone is accusing him of not doing his job. “It’s like, I can make up a rumor about anybody, and you’re going to look into it?”
“No,” I said, “but when it comes to rumors about public officials, elected official who sit on governmental bodies, by the time it’s brought to this newspaper’s attention, the rumor’s already floating around town. If it’s untrue, wouldn’t you rather have it proven a lie instead of letting it continue to fester and grow?”
He had to admit I had a point.
With regard to Muñoz, the claim is that compared to his fellow JP in Precinct 2, Place 1, Bobby Contreras, Muñoz handles a much smaller percentage.
Comparing civil cases over which both justices have presided, year to date, Contreras has handled 1,046 vs. 228 for Muñoz.
Comparing criminal cases over which both men have presided, year to date, Contreras has handled 5,584 vs. 2,304 for Muñoz.
Inquests (pronouncing someone dead either in a hospital bed or at the scene of a horrific accident, for example), year to date, Muñoz comes out on top: 124 vs. 112.
Total revenue collected in each court: Contreras, $862,000 vs. 453,000 for Muñoz.
“The only reason, the ONLY reason for that discrepancy in (civil) case load,” Muñoz said, “is because one firm did a one-time filin of 690 credit-card debt-claim cases in a single JP court in one day (that belonging to Bobby Contreras).”
The filings, said Muñoz, involved a credit-card debt collection service.
What he’s in the process of doing now, he said, is addressing the DA, the county judge and his fellow JPs, so that the justice court mirrors the state district courts and count courts-at-law, whereby, cases filedare downloaded into a computer system that randomly sends them to a JP court, based on jurisdiction, so that the distribution is even, and everyone’s work load is basically the same.
“What’s being done now, in some cases, is called forum shopping,” said Muñoz. “The county has taken steps to discourage this at the courthouse level. I was surprised to find that it is a common and accepted practice in the justice courts. In my opinion, our computer system could be managed to randomly select a court or evenly distribute the workload within the precinct.”
Recently, both Muñoz and Contreras appeared before the county commissioners court asking that the justice courts be brought in line with other county courts by using automated case filings to improve case loads in all four JP precincts.
The commissioners court took no action. But it would appear that some future action may be taken, Muñoz said hopefully.
“Arbitrary selection of a court jeopardizes our court system,” he said, “and it jeopardizes the parties to a lawsuit and jeopardizes the court staff.”
Here’s how the practice sometimes works: if a plaintiff knows a JP and can plant his or her case in that court, they may have a better chance of winning the case, depending on the judge’s ability or inability to remain impartial in the face of a friend standing before his or her bench. A computerized system, on the other hand, that would dole out cases in random fashion would eliminate, or at least reduce, any chance of favoritism or case-number disparity. Plus, no one debt-collection firm could dump 690 credit-card debt-collection cases in one JP’s court in one single day, thereby skewing the case-load numbers and making it appear as if one JP is doing more work than another.
To get a handle on how “Jerry” Muñoz is handling his new job, I sat down with him for a quick interview. The Democratic Primary field in which he ran last year was like a battlefield full of armed combatants that equaled seven in all. It ended up in a run-off election between Muñoz and Eloy Treviño. The election left a lot of people bloodied, politically speaking, and even today, Muñoz is loved by his admirers and dissed by his critics. And so goes politics in Hidalgo County.
So, before the election, you said if elected, you were going to give up your law practice so you could show your children the meaning of public service, and that some things are more important than money. So, how is that working out for you?
Muñoz: “I resigned Jan. 1st as the attorney for (several cities including San Juan). I also gave up half of my other clients. I've sacrificeda big portion of my practice to become JP. I asked for this job, and the JP’s office is where I spend most of my time.”
So you’re doing the job you promised you would do?
Muñoz: “I am. And there’s a very interesting point to all of this. I'm not the only JP with a second gig. Whoever is out there attacking me or saying, ‘You know what? Jerry's a lawyer.’ Okay? And? How come you haven't attacked the other JPs who do something else for a living?
“Fortunately, I'm blessed to have two jobs that I can do, and I'm going to keep doing it. Do they want a lazy person or do they want somebody who is going to work?”
I think the people making this claim against you say that Jerry Muñoz abides in his (law) office.He's out doing his own legal work, and he's at the county courthouse doing his legal work, and therefore his JP's office, while it may be staffed with clerks, he's not actually there himself to hear the cases. What you're saying is that it's not true. Your doors are open, and you’re there.
Muñoz: “We have trials every single day. I just heard six or seven trials. I just got off the bench. I’m saying I’m here every day because we schedule trials every day. That’s what I’m saying. I’m here every day because we schedule trials every day. But I don’t have to be at the front window taking files.
Could you schedule more trials if you were here more?
Muñoz: “We schedule trials every day. As many trials as we have pending, we’ll schedule them.”
Don't get me wrong. I'm not going after you just to go after you.
Muñoz: “It's just very upsetting. I know I chose to be in this life, but it's very upsetting that I gave up a lot for my family. I know, nobody asked me to do it. I did it because I wanted to do it. But here you go, be careful what you ask for, because you got it. I gave up a lot, and I'm doing my job, because I'm not going to disappoint people. I'm not going to give people the satisfaction of messing up. I'm doing what I have to do as a JP, but even then, they have to find something (that’s simply not true) and say, ‘Look at this. Jerry's not doing this.’ How could they possibly say I'm not doing my job?”
Let me ask you this then. Let's say that you gave up all of your law practice, whatever percent you're still doing. If you gave that up entirely, would that then allow you to hear more cases at the JP court?
Muñoz: “No, because I’m not backlogged. We have (cases) served, and then we schedule them. I’m not sitting on a backlog of cases.”
How has the bad side of the job been working out for you? The 3 a.m. calls where you have to drive out and pronounce someone dead. View the gory scenes?
Muñoz: “It's never easy having to witness somebody who has just passed away. I've seen some very graphic accidents and very graphic incidents. It’s never easy to witness that. It's never easy to leave your home at 3 o'clock in the morning or 4 o'clock in the morning, but it's part of the job, and you do it. I have to sympathize with the fire department, with the police department who can't move along with their investigation until I get there. Yeah, you get that call, you need to jump out of bed and you need to go over there.
“You don't have time to say, ‘Okay. Let me wake up. I'll be there in an hour.’ You got to get up because that entire investigation is at a standstill until (a JP) gets there.”
Those cases actually cross county precincts, don't they? I've heard from some JPs who say that some of their colleagues, and we're not going to name names, but perhaps we should, but I’ve heard some JPs say that there are some justices of the peace in this county who do loaf on the job, and they don’t answer those annoying phone calls at 3 a.m., leaving the cops to call around until they finally find a JP willing to pick up the phone. What’s your take on that?
Muñoz: “Those calls do cross precincts. I go to Donna, Mission, Edinburg. And other JPs have crossed over into this precinct (2) as well.”
And the cops tell you which JP isn’t picking up the phone?
Muñoz: “They make no bones about telling you. Yes.”
There’s talk among the local law-enforcement community that out of eight county JPs, there are at least four who aren’t pulling their weight. And there’s even one who allegedly refuses to work on the weekends, making it unfair to the other seven JPs who work a full week. Then, allegedly, too, there’s a JP who takes one day off during the middle of every week. To go fishing,lie on the couch and watch “The Price Is Right,” no way of telling. The cops don’t want to name names, not wanting to risk any JP from whom they may need help during the day. But it would be in the public’s best interest to findout who the four JPs are – the ones not carrying their weight -- because it should matter when election time comes around. The public is best served, or so it would seem, by justices of the peace who answer all calls at all hours of the day or night, including the tough ones that come in during the middle of the night, when the rain is pouring and the lightning flashing.
Muñoz: “I don’t want to name names, even off the record. But there are county records you can get that show the number of inquests each JP is handling on a monthly basis.”
But they still offer no clue as to who’s not picking up during the middle of the night, or indeed, if one JP is taking a day off during the middle of the week.
Muñoz: “That’s true.
“I’m not complaining about those middle-of-the-night calls. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up to run for office.But the people who say I’m not doing my job are simply mistaken. Because I am. And I think the county records will bear that out for anyone who wants to dig into them.
“One thing I’d like to add, though, and that is, I have appreciated the fact that Judge (Bobby) Contreras has helped me learn the ropes, so to speak. He has been kind and professional with me, telling me this is how this works, and how that works. Because whereas I may have known the legal word, and I had experience in the professional law for many years, it was Judge Contreras who made the transition from lawyer to JP much easier than it would have been had I had to do it all by myself.”