Aurora Martinez-Jones Candidate Questionnaire

 

1. What actions have you taken to improve your community?

Whether it’s been as a judge, lawyer, or when I was a student I have been actively involved in a variety of efforts and initiatives to improve our community. Growing up in an immigrant household I often translated, not just language, but also culture for my parents and my family. I knew I wanted to go to law school to become a lawyer in order to use the law to continue to give back. I am the first professional in my family and I didn’t know any lawyers growing up. When I arrived at the University of Texas, I found that the pre-Law group that existed didn’t really reflect my experiences or address my concerns as a woman of color – so I created my own. Now, to this day, Minority Women Pursuing Law exists to help foster community and create a support network. I regularly speak to the organization and provide courthouse tours and internships to members as a way to give back because I know the difference being a mentor can make in people’s lives, especially marginalized communities.

While I was in law school I interviewed with big law firms but ultimately decided to create my own firm so that I would have the flexibility to take on the cases I wanted to in order to be able to help the most vulnerable among us. I created a business plan and carried it around, and after I earned my Bar card I hung out my shingle. I spent nearly a decade as a civil litigator and practicing family law. In that time I was the president of the Black Austin Lawyers Association, served on the board of directors for the Texas Young Lawyers, and chaired the Court Appointed Family Advocates.

My passion for child welfare and the fact that I had practiced in front of every civil district judge led to my appointment as Associate Judge where I have spent several years presiding over the CPS and Family Drug Court dockets. As a judge my aim is to provide a court of support and to implement best practices, such as being a trauma-informed court and requiring the aspects of the system I oversee to operate in that fashion. I oversee a parenting in recovery program to try and keep families together. I serve on a variety of task forces and initiatives including the Children’s Justice Act Task Force, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families. In these roles I am active in pushing for the spread of trauma informed courts, improving how we approach school discipline of foster youth to help keep kids in the classroom, fighting commercial exploitation and domestic child sex trafficking, working for sex education for our foster youth that addresses sexual trauma and prevents teen pregnancy, and providing mentors and creating a support network for young women who do become pregnant as they are aging out of the system, to highlight a few efforts. When I am not on the bench or out in the community I continue to serve as a mentor as well as on the board of the Girls Empowerment Network.

2. Have you advocated for judicial reform previously?

If so, please explain. Yes, I have extensively advocated for judicial reform as a lawyer and as a judge. As an Associate Judge I oversee the child welfare dockets for Travis County, primarily the CPS and family drug court dockets. My court is trauma-informed, that is, I do not ask what’s wrong with you, but what has happened and how can we support you. I am a member of the Steering Committee for the Travis County Collaborative for Children, whose purpose is intended to bring system-wide change to the way foster children in Travis County are cared for during, and after, their time in state custody. In addition, after discussions with SAFE on the highest need for my courts, we collaborated to create a grant-funded Domestic Advocate position whose job it is to support survivors on the CPS dockets. We now have an advocate available, on-site, during court hearings to work with survivors, make referrals, and to provide awareness and education when needed. Another example of my work has been with the Children’s Commission, a statewide initiative to ensure the students, teachers, and administration have the support needed to keep our foster youth in the classroom, successfully, as often as possible and that we are using best practices to do so. Though I am only one judge, there is a lot of power that comes with that and I intend to continue to push for progressive policies and best practices as the 459th District Judge.

3. Please explain in what ways have you worked for domestic violence prevention?

My passion has always been child welfare and how to improve the lives of women. One of my first mentors was Sarah Buel, a nationally renowned expert in domestic violence policy and advocacy. I was her research assistant from my senior year of undergrad until I graduate law school at the University of Texas. In fact, I go back to speak to the Domestic Violence Clinic at UT Law regularly. In addition, in my courtroom we worked with SAFE to create a Domestic Violence Advocate position to support survivors on the CPS docket. Presently, we are exploring further ways we can work to make the court process safer and more supportive to survivors while also finding ways in which to increase education and awareness amongst the lawyers practicing in this area and the greater judicial community. Last, I serve on the Family Violence and Domestic Relations Committee of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, working to help provide cutting-edge training, technical assistance, and policy development on issues related to the effects of abuse across a lifespan.

4. Do you have any concerns regarding gun violence in our state and community?

Yes. However, because this is an issue that could potentially come before the court I do not feel that I may elaborate here due to the constraints of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically Canon 5, which prohibits comment on matters that are or may come before the court that would suggest bias.

5. Have you advocated for criminal justice reform in the past? If so, please explain.

Yes. While my legal practice and judicial position are civil law in nature, the dockets I preside over and the issues I choose to advocate on in our community orient around justice work. I work in my court and in the community to reform the CPS and foster care system, fighting for a higher quality of life for our youth and families, better disciplinary procedures, and trying to break the cycle of trauma, abuse, and crime that is often perpetuated by the system. When I am able, I keep families together and get them the services and support they need to do better. In addition, after representing clients in it for 6 years, I am the presiding judge of the Travis County Family Drug Treatment Court, which works to maintain children in the care of their parents while they begin the journey of recovery from addiction and develop the skills and ability to safely parent their children. I also teach CLEs and present on being trauma informed and other best practices to spread their use across our community and across the state. I am consistently looking for ways to be more efficient, progressive, and supportive in terms of the part of the system I can control as a judge as well advocate for those positions. 

6. What state policies would you like to see in place to address racial justice? What actions have you taken on racial justice?

Our foster care system is broken – there is no mincing words or equivocating about it. As it stands, like many other systems in our society, it dramatically affects people of color at a horrifyingly disproportionate rate. When parents and children come into my court they think they have already lost because the system was created without them in mind and doesn’t work for them. Far too often children of color are put in the foster care system unnecessarily. My hope is to rebuild trust and to provide support – to demand that the lawyers, social workers, mental health providers, and law enforcement officers who work in my court are trauma informed and provide support to the children and families who appear before us instead of further traumatizing them. We need better access to quality education, healthcare, and support services to break cycles of abuse and neglect and get folks back on track. We need more education and awareness to empower people as well as to demystify the courtroom and make sure the community knows that as a judge I am a public servant here to serve them. In addition, it has been critical to me to create pipelines of leadership in our communities of color so that students and young people know there are opportunities for them and that there are folks willing to support them in their endeavors.

7. Are there ways the justice system disadvantages workers? If so, what changes would you advocate for?

Yes. The first way the justice system disadvantages workers is access – be it having to take time off work, arrange for childcare, transportation, etc. We could explore the feasibility of night or weekend court to try and help address this as well as get community feedback about how to better address people’s needs. Similarly, there are often cultural and language barriers that we have to continue to proactively mitigate through education or awareness as well as by being active in the community to demystify the system. In addition, criminal histories prevent folks from being able to get good jobs that provide benefits or economic security. That’s why it is important to have programs like the Family Drug Court I preside over – to get folks treatment and support in order to break the cycle. In general, we need to continue to explore more progressive and pro-active policies that make the system trauma informed and supportive so that we are serving the entire community as best we can.

8. In your view should there be any change to the role of corporate funding in our elections?

Currently no corporate money is allowed in elections in Texas. I am not opposed to accepting money from progressive or labor union PACs if they choose to endorse and support me as such.

 

9. What are some policies you would implement to make our election system more democratic?

Having a representative democracy – that is one where our elected officials reflect and look like the communities they represent – is paramount in inspiring confidence and fostering participation in the system. I know the difference having mentors and roles models makes. I never thought about being a judge until a sitting judge who was a woman of color suggested I would have been good at it. Nationwide, and in Texas, there are large disparities in the make up of our citizenry and our elected judiciary – and this gap is even larger for people and women of color. I recently spoke on the Gavel Gap at the Getting Radical in the South (GRITS) Conference hosted by the American Constitution Society at the University of Texas School of Law. I have been very intentional in my career to try and help throw open the doors to the halls of power for any one who may come behind me, serving as a mentor, a role model, or a voice of support and encouragement for young women and girls. It has been important to me to collaborate and to empower others to take action and be involved, especially on the local level, because the more folks do the better the results for the entire community. 

10. What’s your solution for gerrymandering?

Because this is an issue that could potentially come before the court I do not feel that I may elaborate here due to the constraints of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically Canon 5, which prohibits comment on matters that are or may come before the court that would suggest bias.

11. How are you funding your campaign?

Primarily I am holding events and meet and greets, having one on one meetings, and using call time to solicit support from my friends, colleagues, and people I have met or worked with in the legal community. I am also raising money from Democratic activists and community leaders as well as any folks I meet who are concerned about the judicial system.

12. Have you advocated for the rights of undocumented immigrants? If so, please explain.

As the daughter of immigrants – my father is from Mexico and my mother from Jamaica – these issues are close to my heart. As a law student I spent a semester interning for the Political Asylum Project, now called American Gateways, which works to provide free or low cost legal services for immigrant survivors of persecution or trafficking. I have practiced immigration law. Mainly, I helped spouses and relatives petition for visas for their loved ones. I also helped get waivers for people whose loved ones had initial entries that were undocumented.

13. Are there ways the justice system disadvantages or discriminates against women? If so, what changes would you advocate for?

Women, especially women of color, are disadvantaged by the justice system. Some of the programs I have started or expanded aim to address that. For example, the Family Drug Court I preside over aims to enable parenting in recovery. Similarly, I am part of the Parental Substance Use & CPS Collaborative, a statewide initiative that focuses on how to appropriately and effectively work with parents in CPS cases who suffer from substance use disorder as well as provide education to the judiciary across the state that presides over these cases. In short, we need to keep families together and provide people with the support systems and services they need. To that effect, I have worked on a variety of programs and initiatives to address child sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and mentorship for teen mothers in the foster care system. In addition, I serve on the board of Girls Empowerment Network which seeks to instill in school aged girls and young women self-esteem, healthy relationships, body image, etc., to support them as they navigate school and life. That sort of community work is vital in ensuring we can not just help people already in the system but mitigate the likelihood that they end up in it in the first place. I also serve on the board of the Travis County Women Lawyers Foundation, which gives grants to organizations providing legal services to women, children, and families in the Central Texas area.

14. If there were one thing you could accomplish immediately, what would it be?

If there was one thing I could accomplish immediately it would be that every foster care home in the system would be a trauma trained, therapeutic home. That means caring and dedicated individuals need to commit to opening their homes to the most vulnerable children in our community because these children deserve safe, stable, loving environments to heal and enjoy their childhood. This would drastically increase the quality of life of the youths we serve as we work to find them a forever home.

15. What is your campaign strategy for winning in November?

The reality of winning the Democratic nomination for a countywide seat in Travis County is that you will win the election in November. However, I am committed to engaging in voter registration and outreach as well as to participating in the county coordinated campaign. As a judge and judicial candidate you cannot endorse other candidates but you can provide support to the party and their efforts.