Austin's first openly gay Latina judge breaking generational cycles

Travis County has elected its first openly-gay Latina to serve on a county court bench and Denise Hernández says she’s committed to creating fair access in the courtroom.

It’s been several days since the primary election in Travis County, but campaign sign cleanup means elections are over. "The goal is to be environmentally friendly. We don't want these out here and getting caught up in the wind and staying in the fields," Hernández says.

Some may call the clean-up a tedious task, but not for judge-elect Hernández who says it’s an honor for her.

"It’s kind of almost like a meditative experience because every time I come out to a polling location, I can't help but think that there were people here who really were thinking about the change they wanted to see in the courtroom," Hernández says.

The judge-elect won the democratic primary for Travis County Court number 6. There’s no Republican candidate which means come 2023, she’ll head up the courtroom.

"It’s been just a really transformative experience to see what type of change they want to see in the courtroom and then using my campaign as a way to make that happen," Hernández says.

She's a daughter of immigrants, the first in her family to go to college, the first to be a lawyer and now she’ll be the first judge, a journey that didn't come easy.

"We grew up with a lot of hardship and it’s not that my parents didn’t work hard but there were a lot of systemic barriers that they faced," Hernández said. "I watched my mom go through eviction proceedings. My dad faced incarceration, honestly watching the majority of the men in my life face incarceration, a lot of that shaped my passion for social justice."

According to numbers from the National Institute of Justice, children are six times more likely to be incarcerated if the child’s parent was also imprisoned, but the statistics didn’t stop Hernández.

"My hope is that my lived experience can help bring true experience of people who are most marginalized by the justice system," Hernández says.

In county court number six she’ll deal mainly with misdemeanors, hoping to bring fairness and equity while also holding people accountable.

"If we can truly understand how our court system impacts our most marginalized communities like low-income communities, communities of color, LGBTQ communities, if you can understand that, then we can begin to address those inequities and truly create fair access in our courtroom," Hernández said.

The judge-elect will take office in January 2023.

That court also heads up Project Engage, a misdemeanor docket for teens ages 17 through 19 to help with additional support and reduce convictions and jail sentences when appropriate.

Out of five county courts up for re-election, four of the incoming judges are daughters of immigrants.

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