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San Juan Municipal Judge José “Joe” Ramírez, a Democrat, facing 464th Hidalgo County District Court Judge Ysmael Fonseca, a Republican and appointee of Gov. Abbott, during the November 3, 2020 elections - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured: San Juan Municipal Judge José “Joe” Ramírez, a Democrat, is seeking election to the 464th Hidalgo County District Court. District courts have original jurisdiction in felony criminal cases, divorce cases, cases involving title to land, election contest cases, civil matters in which the amount of money or damages involved is $200 or more, and any matters in which jurisdiction is not placed in another trial court.

Photograph Courtesy JUDGE JOE RAMÍREZ FACEBOOK

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San Juan Municipal Judge José “Joe” Ramírez, a Democrat, facing 464th Hidalgo County District Court Judge Ysmael Fonseca, a Republican and appointee of Gov. Abbott, in the November 3, 2020 elections

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

San Juan Municipal Judge José “Joe” Ramírez, a Democrat, is facing 464th Hidalgo County District Court Judge Ysmael Fonseca, a Republican and appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott, in the November 3, 2020 elections.

The winner will be the first judge to be elected to that bench, and to serve a four-year term on the 464th Hidalgo County District Court, whose creation was authorized by the Texas Legislature in 2017. 

Senate Bill 1329, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and sponsored by Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, created the 464th Hidalgo County District Court, along with several other courts elsewhere in Texas, “to help ensure the state has adequate judicial resources,” according to the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives.

The author is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).

The sponsor is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.

As the Texas population grows and shifts, there is an impact on the courts, and the state’s judicial system needs to be adjusted. The courts that would be created by the bill were identified by the Office of Court Administration after analysis of several factors, including increases in caseloads and case backlogs,” the House Research Organization bill analysis further noted.

Creating new courts as needed works well for the state because it allows the Legislature to focus resources where the data support a need, the House Research Organization bill analysis stated. Counties in which a new court would be created have adopted resolutions in support of an additional court in their area.

District courts have original jurisdiction in felony criminal cases, divorce cases, cases involving title to land, election contest cases, civil matters in which the amount of money or damages involved is $200 or more, and any matters in which jurisdiction is not placed in another trial court.

In announcing his decision to seek election to the 464th Hidalgo County District Court, Ramírez provided details into his philosophy and credentials. 

Key background on Fonseca is available online at:

According to Ramírez’ news release:

He currently serves as municipal judge for the City of San Juan, where he has established a reputation of overseeing arraignments and cases in a judicious, respectful, and impartial manner.

Ramírez has been a practicing attorney for more than a decade with extensive experience of the legal system, including criminal defense, family law, personal injury, felony cases, federal cases, and jury trials.

“My professional career as an attorney and judge, combined with my strong values of respect and integrity, make me the ideal candidate to fairly discern judgment and preside over the many different types of cases that will come before the 464th District Court,” said Ramírez. 

“I promise to uphold the office and the bench with the respect that it merits, and to treat everyone that comes before the bench with the respect and fairness that they deserve,” he added.

In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed the Senate Bill 1329 to create the 464th District Court. The 464th District Court went into effect January 1, 2019, to which Abbott appointed temporary judges to preside over the court until the next election cycle. 

Since the creation of the 464 District Court, Ramírez felt that this was his opportunity to further serve the people of Hidalgo County in a judicial capacity, as this has always been his goal and aspiration to serve his
community. 

Ramírez has utilized the last two years to disseminate his message of service and to demonstrate his commitment to all citizens of Hidalgo County.

“I have long been a voice for the people, an advocate for the voiceless, and have fought against injustice for those in need,” said Ramírez. “I will be a judge who is truly of the people and for the people, and who will serve with the highest integrity and respect and in the best interest of justice for all those who come before the court.”

Ramírez was born in Weslaco and raised in south McAllen by his parents and three older siblings. From an early age, his family instilled in their children the values of respect, integrity, fairness, a strong work ethic, and above all, doing the right thing.

Ramírez’ path to his professional career was anything but traditional. His life experiences have kept him humble and relatable to the everyday person. His parents have also inspired him to believe that anything is possible through hard work, determination, and persistence. 

He  married his high school sweetheart and they became parents when he was 17 years old. Seeking work to provide for his new family, Ramírez dropped out of high school and moved his family to Michigan to work as a shift operator for an automotive parts manufacturer. 

As a result of his extensive bilingual skills, he quickly established himself as a leader and liaison between
management and the workers, who were primarily Spanish-speaking. 

Ramírez remembers witnessing his “worst-ever” instances of racial discrimination, which pushed him to become an advocate for his fellow workers, as they sought to improve working conditions and reduce injuries.

Remembering his parents’ values of integrity and doing the right thing, he became an activist and fought to bring attention to the dangerous working conditions by getting  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) involved. 

OSHA’s duties are to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

Following a nearly life-threatening accident himself, Ramírez realized that he could help others and himself through education.

Through an alternative program, he obtained his high school diploma in 2000. He continued onto college and graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice. While at UTPA, Ramírez again was called upon to help those in need by being a voice against sexual harassment at the university. 

Again, Ramírez became a leader against injustice. 

It became clear to him that he was meant to pursue a degree in law – to help those in need, especially those who felt they could not help themselves. At the same time, while pursuing his Criminal Justice degree, he frequented the Hidalgo County Courthouse, where his older sister and former McAllen City Commissioner Aída Ramírez, worked. He knew then that he could best serve his community by obtaining a law degree, and ultimately serving on the bench.

He attended and graduated from Texas Tech University School of Law and was licensed as a practicing attorney with the State Bar of Texas in November 2008. Throughout his professional legal career, Ramírez has established himself as well-rounded in terms of the law, with his legal experience spanning numerous criminal defense, family law, and personal injury cases. 

Ramírez is also licensed to try cases in the Federal Southern District of Texas and the Federal Eastern District of Texas courts.

He has been married to Jessica for 24 years; they have three children and reside in Edinburg.

Ramírez is an active and well-respected member of his community. He frequently volunteers at schools in his hometown, speaking to students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels about overcoming adversity through education.

“I am a prime example that through hard work and determination, you can pursue and achieve your own personal dreams of success,” Ramírez said. “My dream was to become educated as a way out of a cycle of poverty. My dream was to become an attorney to be an advocate for victims, and my dream is now to serve our community as your next judge of the 464th District Court. It would be an honor and a responsibility that I will take as serious as I have taken everything in my life.”

Hidalgo County as well as other counties in the Rio Grande Valley, are no longer considered high hospitalization areas and, therefore, will be subject to higher occupancy levels ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott in September, a state health official told Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz on Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Abbott relaxed occupancy standards across the state on September 17, 2020, allowing –

• Retail outlets;
• Restaurants;
• Office buildings;
• Manufacturing facilities;
• Gyms;
• Museums; and
• Libraries 

– to open up its occupancy to 75 percent of the facility’s listed capacity – up from 50 percent. 

But also on September 17, 2020, the governor made exceptions for three areas of Texas – the Rio Grande Valley; the Laredo area; and the Victoria area – because hospitals in those regions had COVID-19 patient caseloads in excess of 15 percent of the hospital’s caseload over a seven-day period.

John Hellerstedt, Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner, on Tuesday, October 6, 2020, wrote to Cortéz that Trauma Service Area V (TSA-V), which includes Hidalgo County as well as Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties, were now below the 15 percent threshold and subject to the relaxed occupancy standards that Abbott set out in his September 17, 2020 executive order.

“As a result, as of October 6, 2020, all restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms and exercise facilities and classes, museums, and libraries in all counties in TSA-V may return to previous occupancy levels,” Hellerstedt wrote in a letter to Cortéz.

“This demonstrates that the people of Hidalgo County are making positive strides in combating this virus, and that’s welcome news,” Cortéz said. 

Still, he urged caution, saying the virus remains active in the county.

Officials with the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Department reported 21 more deaths related to COVID-19 and 205 new known positive cases of the virus, Cortéz announced on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. 

The result is a total of 1,805 recorded deaths related to the outbreak of this disease and 33,018 known total positive cases.

The latest numbers come out on a day in which Abbott announced his intention to allow county judges at the local level to decide whether to reopen bars. Cortéz said he intends to consult with local health officials before deciding.

“Just yesterday (Tuesday, October 6, 2020) we were notified by the state that we are no longer considered a high hospitalization area,” Cortéz said. “I intend to talk to local health experts, including our health authority, director of our health department and mayors before deciding on the next steps for Hidalgo County. My desire is to have a decision regarding local bars before October 14, the day the governor is allowing bars to reopen.”

Abbott on Wednesday, October 7, 2020, issued an Executive Orderto open bars and similar establishments at up to 50% capacity in conjunction with county officials. In hospital regions with low COVID-19 hospitalizations, County Judges will be able to opt their county into opening bars beginning October 14, provided they assist in enforcing health protocols

The governor’s Executive Order also increases the occupancy levels for all business establishments other than bars to 75%. 

“Even as more businesses have opened and students return to school, Texans have shown we can contain the spread of COVID-19,” said Abbott. “Thanks to Texans following the best health practices, our state is prepared for additional openings, including bars. Working with industry leaders and our team of medical experts, the State of Texas has now developed strategies to safely open bars under certain health protocols. To ensure bars open safely, these openings will be done in conjunction with county officials. 

“County Judges will be able to opt their county into opening bars so long as they assist in enforcing the health protocols. Opening bars does not mean that COVID-19 is no longer a threat, and most Texans are still susceptible to the virus,” the governor continued. “As bars and similar businesses begin to open, we all must remain vigilant and show personal responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”’

For Trauma Service Areas (TSAs) where COVID-19 hospitalizations are less than 15% of hospital capacity, a County Judge may authorize the opening of bars and similar establishments at 50% occupancy. If a County Judge authorizes the opening of these establishments, certain protocols must be followed. 

As recommended by trade associations representing bars, dance floors at bars and similar establishments must remain closed. 

Consistent with protocols for restaurants, all patrons must be seated while eating or drinking (with limited exceptions for sampling at breweries, distilleries, and wineries), and must wear masks when they are not seated at a table. Additionally, tables must be limited to six individuals or less and all establishments must follow specific curfew guidelines. 

Beginning Wednesday, October 14, 2020, all counties where COVID-19 hospitalizations are less than 15% of hospital capacity can open all businesses other than bars to 75% capacity. 

Additionally, the governor releaseda web video with his Executive Order, encouraging Texans to continue following best practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

The video can be viewed on YouTube.

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Carlos Sánchezand Lizbeth González contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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