Appointment of 3rd judge in Edinburg questioned

EDINBURG — The council appointed Edinburg attorney Armando Guerra to serve as an alternate municipal judge last month, and the appointment has not come without criticism.

At $30,000 per year, Guerra will serve as one of two judges hired to hear cases when longtime Edinburg Municipal Judge Terry Palacios is unavailable.

Guerra was sworn in last week after the council appointed him to the post during a special called meeting Jan. 23.

Palacios, however, questioned the council’s decision to appoint Guerra, a political ally of the majority.

“At one point in Edinburg, it’s going to be crazy enough to have three judges, but at this point, I don’t think it’s necessary,” Palacios said Tuesday. “I don’t know how they justified it. But they got him, and that’s their decision.”

Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina defended the council’s decision Tuesday, saying he saw the need firsthand as a former police officer and noting that the council did not create a position. They simply replaced the vacancy left behind by former alternate judge Rogelio Solis, who recently left of his own volition to expand his practice, Molina said.

“The need has always been there, and even the previous administration agreed with that,” he said. “All we did was replace one with (another) one. We didn’t add one.”

Edinburg is one of the few cities in the Rio Grande Valley where residents elect their municipal judges. Most city councils appoint someone to the post.

Palacios, however, has been elected to the position time and time again since 1994. And aside from his first stab at the post, he’s never had to run against anyone else.

“I ran in 1994 and I won that election, and I’ve run ever since unopposed” he previously told The Monitor.

But in September 2015, the then city council amended the charter to allow itself to appoint one or more alternate judges to serve while the elected judge was unavailable. Since then, the city has employed at least one alternate judge.

“Before they appointed these judges, we used to have courtesies amongst other towns,” Palacios said, referencing the practice of using municipal judges from neighboring cities to cover vacancies. “Why should we have our citizens pay for another judge when I had a system where our fellow judges would sit in and do the magistrations for me?”

Still, the practice wasn’t perfect, Palacios admitted. For example, visiting judges couldn’t hear cases involving Class C misdemeanors nor city ordinance violations.

“They had no authority over that,” Palacios said.

‘NEED’

Edinburg has an estimated population of over 90,000, according to the latest available Census figures from 2017.

And a community that size needs a municipal judge that is accessible, Molina said, adding that neighboring McAllen employs five municipal judges. (Census data indicates McAllen has a population of over 142,000.)

“The city of Weslaco has three; The city of Mission has three; The city of Pharr has three. These are cities that are comparable to our size that have three or more judges,” Molina said. “There’s been three municipal judges for a while, and that means Terry, plus two.”

He also noted that Palacios did not appear to take issue when, under former Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia, Hector Bustos was appointed to the same position.

“It’s funny that Terry didn’t have a problem with that appointment because his law partner made the appointment,” Molina said about Garcia, the former mayor. “This probably has something to do with him just being on the opposite side.”

Molina also indicated that Palacio’s accessibility was limited.

“Officers have to sit and wait all day to get someone arraigned,” he said, adding that Palacios, “a defense attorney by trade,” begins hearing cases at 3 p.m. “So it’s a big-time liability for us because if somebody gets arrested on a Sunday afternoon, they don’t get arraigned until Terry shows up at 3 o’clock on Monday.”

And having someone sit in jail increases the city’s liability.

“We’ve had suicides happen in our jail, people that have medical conditions that need to get out — not everyone that goes to jail is a hardened criminal,” Molina said.

Palacios, however, indicated his availability can be reflected in his docket.

“We’re not behind; we’re not backlogged; we’re up to date with everything,” he said. “This month, I haven’t been out all month.”

In January, the city’s other alternate judge, Agustin Hernandez, stepped in for four days while Palacios attended a continuing education conference for municipal judges hosted by the Texas Municipal League.

“One day I did go to Bastrop on another (personal) case — on the 22nd or 29th of January — but that was it,” he said, noting Guerra has yet to fill in for him. “I was out one day besides the judge’s conference.”

And even though Guerra has yet to step in for Palacios, he’s already being paid, according to staff notes on the Jan. 23 agenda packet.

According to the document available on the city’s website, Edinburg prorated Guerra’s pay in January, paying him $645. But beginning Feb. 1, Guerra began receiving the agreed upon amount: $2,500 every first of the month until the expiration of his contract September 30, 2021.

Guerra, who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Homer Jasso Sr. last year, declined to respond to Palacios’ comments.

“I don’t get too involved in anything that’s said, but he (the mayor) would be the one to answer that,” he said about Palacios’ remarks.

Guerra, who’s been practicing law for over eight years, said he’s ready to put in the work and man a night court, if necessary, to make the court’s services more accessible to residents.

“I’m not here to just sit back. I’m here to work, and I’m ready to do what I need to do,” he said. “I’m a team player.”