A Former Prosecutor And A Defense Attorney Run Off To Lead Travis County's Domestic Violence Court

Jul 13, 2020

If you’re voting in the Democratic primary runoff in Travis County on Tuesday, you’ll see a race somewhere in the middle of the ballot for a judgeship for something called County Court at Law No. 4.

There are two candidates in the runoff: Dimple Malhotra and Margaret Chen Kercher.

Like a lot of you out there, I didn’t know what County Court at Law No. 4 does.

It’s a specialty court in Travis County that deals almost exclusively in misdemeanor domestic violence cases. So if you’re charged with misdemeanor family violence, this is the court you’d likely end up in. The court also oversees a diversion program for people charged with prostitution called Phoenix Court.

Malhotra is the incumbent – though if she wins, this would be her first full term on the court. She was appointed to the court last fall after the former judge resigned to run (unsuccessfully) for county attorney.

Malhotra has worked on domestic violence issues for years: as an advocate at a nonprofit and as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. She calls this area of law her “passion."

“As a young child, I was exposed to domestic violence in my family and you know, as I grew older, I initially thought that this was something that only happened in Indian families,” said Malhotra, who was born in New Delhi. “I slowly learned that, unfortunately, domestic violence is an epidemic that really does cross all barriers and affects so many people.”

Looking to what would be her first full term in the office, Malhotra says she wants to do a couple things, including starting a diversion program for young, first-time offenders that would send those defendants to treatment and counseling, instead of jail.

“I know when you grow up in a home and you’re exposed to family violence and you don’t have healthy relationship models, it is very easy for people to turn to that type of behavior and duplicate it in their own relationships,” she said.

This idea of giving defendants a chance to unlearn violent behaviors is something both candidates in this race embrace.

“Without rehabilitation, there is no long-time fix,” said Chen Kercher. “In a way, you can think of jail time as kind of a Band-Aid fix.”

Chen Kercher is a defense attorney who has worked domestic violence cases in the past, mostly as a court-appointed lawyer for indigent clients.  

“If you’re just jailed for a year and there’s no rehabilitation or there’s no counseling, then we’re not giving the defendant a chance to be better and to improve over time,” she said.

She says defense attorneys can get a bad reputation, especially in these types of cases. But she argues they play a vital role in making sure their clients' rights are protected.

“I think what is difficult and what is complex is, you know, trying to break through, ‘Look, yes this allegation is very serious, but we still need to go through the process and we can’t just fast-track to conviction,'” she said.

Court at Law No. 4 handles about 4,000 misdemeanor domestic violence cases each year. Chen Kercher has made the backlog of cases one of the main focuses of her campaign. Basically, the court is handling so many cases that they have piled up, sometimes taking months or more to get jury trials.

“This backlog of cases has increased to the point where it’s denying justice," she said. “Neither side can get closure when the cases are just hanging out and pending and they don’t get a resolution until sometimes more than a year later.”

She argues effective diversion programs and granting bond to more defendants – with appropriate conditions on them – would help reduce the backlog.

But Malhotra says she has already made progress in reducing the backlog.

“I’ve been able to reduce the backlog by 25% in just six months on the bench,” Malhotra said. “I’ve changed the way that cases are reset, the way the docket is managed — that’s all within the judge’s control.”

But a big backlog remains. Chen Kercher argues she’s the best one to address it.

“I deeply understand that as a judge, my job is to call the balls and strikes and make sure that both sides are heard,” she said.

Malhotra says there’s only one thing that matters in this race: experience.

And she says she has it because of the decisions she makes on a daily basis, “evaluating the risks involved in a particular case – things that can affect the safety of victims, but also ultimately our entire community.”

There is no Republican running in the race, so whoever wins the primary runoff is pretty much guaranteed to win the seat in November.

Got a tip? Email Matt Largey at mlargey@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.

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