The 2018 midterm elections are upon us and women are running for office in record numbers. One such woman, Sylvia Holmes, went from helping to plan the Women’s March in Austin, the largest march in Texas history, to deciding to run for office herself.
The other week we sat down to discuss why she wants to be elected to the people’s court, the merits of a UT vs. Texas A&M game and sitting on a bale of hay.
Here are my questions and her answers, slightly edited for clarity.
Tell me something about yourself
I’m a lifelong Texan who’s lived in Austin for over 20 years. I’m a “Bridger,” born in 1981, so I’m a Millennial, but I also remember using a rotary phone. I was born in Houston, but I grew up in Anderson County, a rural community. I lived there with my family between kindergarten and 6th grade.
I was a Daddy’s girl. We had 50 acres for cattle and crops like corn and watermelons which we sold at the Farmer’s market. I loved it. We plowed that field all on our own, dug posts and drove tractors. My favorite picture from that time is of me sitting on a hay roll with a big smile after helping my dad with the harvesting.
Most people would consider my family as being poor because we lived in a mobile home, but we were better off than many others. My dad was one of only a few in the town who went to college and worked a office job with benefits.
Once, Governor Ann Richards came and spoke at my school in Slocum. It was a huge deal and I got to see her up close (think 1-2 feet away). It absolutely shaped my perception of what women could do because I had just turned 9 and no one told me it was odd to have a female governor.
We moved to Austin when I was in the 6th grade. Have you heard of the Yogurt Shop Murders in 1990s off Anderson Lane? It was really bad. At a yogurt store in Austin four young girls were murdered and the mystery was never solved. That case shook the state and laws about child labor were passed after that so teenagers wouldn’t be left alone to close a business. My father became a child labor investigator and we moved to Austin. I went from elementary-middle-high school population of 300 to just a seventh grade class with over 200 students. It was a huge change.
How was that?
At first, I was teased for being an overweight redneck. I had an East Texas accent and said words funny. I also had to stop saying “going to town” to mean “going to the grocery store”. It was an adjustment. In Austin we had sidewalks and doorbells; you don’t need doorbells in the country. In the country, if someone’s walking up your driveway it’s because they know you.
However, I’ve been a city girl ever since arriving in Austin and love my city.
What’s your proudest accomplishment from ages 7-14? Why are you proud of this?
Successfully moving to Austin in 7th grade and then in 8th grade in Round Rock. Twice I was thrust into new schools and excelled at both. It was great coming to Austin and meeting kids from other backgrounds and cultures.
What position are you running for?
Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3.
What political experience do you have? Formal or otherwise
I’m Associate Director of Legal Services for Students at UT. My office represents all enrolled students in civil small claims and criminal misdemeanors, so I’m at the Justice of the Peace and County Court every day. This office is covered by a tiny part of their tuition (about $5 a year) and was started in the 1960’s by student government to help out the students. We are like a general practice law firm in a town of 50,000 people. We advocate locally, statewide and nationally for all of our students.
I’m new to running for politics (and proud of it!) but experienced at justice. My job involves solving problems for people on both sides in a fair way.
I’ve had a lot of clients who really embraced me, beyond ‘you’re just a lawyer.’ I’ve changed their opinion because they’ve felt their voice was truly being heard, not just listened to, but heard.
What does a Justice of the Peace do?
You’re the judge in the people’s court. In Texas that means you’re in court for a criminal ticket, but it’s a minor enough offense that you can’t be sent to jail. This includes traffic tickets, underage drinking, park issues, littering, trespassing (like sneaking into parks after hours), curfew violations (students leaving school during lunch), dog bites, marriages, car accidents and home repair disputes to name a few.
You don’t need a lawyer to file a lawsuit or to defend yourself in a people’s court but people often don’t want to go or ask for help for fear of cost, retribution, or for fear of looking foolish.
As a judge, I don’t want those fears to be barriers. I’ve been the poor kid from rural America. I’ve been poor, I’ve been rural, I’ve been fat, I’ve been fit, I’m still the same person, so I know what it’s like to feel insecure. Everyone should have a little empathy, especially a judge.
The way I see it is ‘You’ve made a mistake, so let’s make this a learning moment’. Let’s make this useful and not just the judge yelling at you. I’d like to ease the anxiety because everyone needs to feel confident that justice will be served even if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
Why do you want to be a Justice of the Peace?
I want to help people. Use my experience and knowledge of the law to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and equitability and leaves feeling respected by the situation. If you broke the law you’ll have to pay a fine or pay the consequences but there’s a way to make it a rehabilitative moment. I want to help restore faith in government. Our courts are truly the people’s court and we need to ensure that it’s fair. Minorities, people who aren’t wealthy, and people who are undocumented, should feel respected from start to finish because the court is there to serve the community.
What makes a good judge?
Someone who has a wide variety of experiences who can empathize with variety of situations, who is flexible. A judge need to be friendly, because you deal with marriages, contracts below $10,000 and traffic tickets. Unless you get jury duty, arrested or have to visit divorce court, you’re not going to see most courts. Since this is likely to be the only experience in court that you’ll ever have, the judge must represent the judicial branch well.
What are the biggest issues your constituents are facing?
Lack of knowledge about Texas laws and consumer protection. Texas is a “buyer beware” and owner-friendly state. It’s completely on you to do your research. As a renter you have fewer rights and greater responsibility because you’re borrowing someone’s house for a period of time.
I’m a landlord, so I’ve seen both sides. I’ve seen both sides. As a judge it comes down to the facts of the case and the lease. Young adults getting ready to graduate would benefit if the court did preventative education at the schools, or even just posting basic information on the court’s website.
Another issue is older adults entering a new phase and not being prepared. I want to get information out there to start talking to senior centers about getting ready for retirement. Lots of people are going to senior or assisted living houses or renting out their spaces as Air BNB. I want to ask them, ‘Do you know your rights and responsibilities?’ and then guide them to accurate information.
The last issue is affordability. Some judges give the harshest fines no matter the circumstance. I don’t feel like a senior citizen on fixed Social Security income should have to pay the highest fine because they forgot to hang the handicapped placard on their rearview mirror one time. Justice should be to serve a purpose, not simply to serve a punishment.
If you are elected, how will you help your constituents?
I don’t believe in rubber stamping things, like payday loans and car title loans. If you’re here for a breach of contract, you have to bring that contract. I won’t just rule and give you a win by default. Does it take some time? Sure. But that’s how it should be done.
We could have a heck of an impact. One thing that’s specific to a JP court is that you get issue awareness. We notice trends –fraud, and scams become trends. A JP can report that trend to city council and if it’s happening in the nicest part of Texas, what’s happening in the rest of Texas? As a judge, I can’t make the law, but I can point out potential risks to the city council so they can.
I want to establish a night court, at least once a month. People don’t all work 9-5 jobs. It’s hard for people to get off work to get to court at 2pm. Other counties have night court, why not in our district?
I’d also love to establish community outreach programs to educate everyone about the justice system. Let’s bring students and parents out to see a trial. Let people see how our justice system works; too much is hidden right now.
What is the biggest impact you want to make? You’re biggest goal
This has nothing to do with my job as a JP, but I’d love to reinstate the UT vs. Texas A&M game. They could even do a spectator game. Thanksgiving just hasn’t been the same.
As a person who has decided to run for office for the first time, what advice you have for other people interested in running in the future?
Get started as early as possible.
What’s the time commitment to run?
It consumes every waking hour. Short of my 40 hour job, this is my second full-time job. It starts at 7:30 a.m. and cuts off at 9 p.m. I have to make voice mail calls all day long. Every day twice per week I call other successful candidates for advice, I call people who’ve donated to other judges, and cold fundraising calls to strangers. It’s hard for me to ask for money, and it amazes me how many people I’ve met on the campaign trail who have given me $25 – $50 after one meeting. I am grateful for their support and aim to make them proud of their candidate.
Beyond that I’m contacting union leaders, community chairs, HOAs, updating myself on news and going to marches.
What made you decide to run?
I like helping people. I’m good at turning difficult legalese to understandable sentences. There are different types of judges. I’m friendly and flexible but follow the rules. The law needs to be applied based upon the specific facts of the case so we cure the current problem, and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Sometimes you need to understand that a senior who forgot to hang her handicap placard shouldn’t have to pay the full fine if she’s living on social security. You need to use your judgement and not throw that book at everyone just to collect fines.
Where can people reach you?
Thanks Sylvia for speaking with March On! Texas! We will be following her as she campaigns for the 2018 midterms.