Voters in Wyandotte County will select two district judges in the Aug. 2 primary election. In a stark break with precedent, two incumbent judges are facing challengers on the Democratic ballot. An unspoken rule in the county courthouse has, before now, allowed sitting judges to run unopposed in the Wyandotte County judge elections.
The incumbents on the ballot are Judge Tony Martinez and Judge Wes Griffin. Martinez is running against David Patrzykont in the 5th Division and Griffin is running against Candice Alcaraz in the 12th Division.
Division numbers are assigned to candidates by the Kansas secretary of state; they do not refer to geographic locations and have no special meaning.
District judges are elected to four-year terms, with half of the judges on the ballot every two years.
The winners of both elections will proceed uncontested to the general election, where they will be the sole candidates for each race.
The Beacon spoke with all four primary candidates to learn more about their campaigns, their perspectives on what justice means and what residents can expect from them in a trial or hearing.
Tony Martinez is one of the two incumbent district court judges, first elected in 2019, being challenged in the 2022 primary. As a judge, Martinez said, he has two priorities in this work.
The first priority, Martinez said, is to be just in how he applies the law to a diverse community. Regardless of whether he agrees with a law, he said, he must be fair in applying the law equally across people of different races, religious backgrounds, genders and colors.
Second, he believes in protecting the integrity of the court as a respected institution.
“I believe that when you come into court, you should look at it almost like going to an old church,” he said. “If you come in, you should act appropriately, be dressed appropriately and be ready to speak for yourself or have your attorney there.”
Through the judicial process, Martinez hopes to achieve outcomes of accountability and responsibility in situations where a person has been harmed.
“Certainly, if someone’s been harmed, we want to try to make them whole again,” Martinez said. “That’s going to start when the offender understands that they’ve got to take responsibility and be accountable for what happened. It’s got to start there.”
By focusing on accountability in the courtroom, Martinez believes the judicial system can reduce recidivism and keep communities safe.
This also means taking into consideration the variety of reasons a crime may happen, which Martinez said can include trauma, mental health and poverty.
Martinez said he takes a community-minded approach to the judicial process, which he believes distinguishes him from other candidates.
He said being involved in the community gives him “touchability” — where the community feels connected to the criminal justice system, rather than detached from it.
“I get invited to do all kinds of things out in the community and people say, ‘That’s our judge,’” he said. “And if they know that and they feel comfortable with me, then they’re going to feel more comfortable at court.”
And when people feel more comfortable in court, Martinez said, they’re more willing to be vulnerable and take responsibility for mistakes they’ve made.
“I’m a strong judge,” he said. “Wyandotte County does not need weak judges. It needs strong judges who care about the community and who are involved in the community. And that perspective I bring makes things different in my courtroom.”
Former fire captain and first responder David Patrzykont is challenging Martinez in the 5th Division primary for Wyandotte County judge.
After working in emergency services, Patrzykont decided to become a lawyer, graduating from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2012. He said he wanted to make good legal advice accessible to people who may not be able to afford expensive legal services.
Patrzykont said he decided to run for district judge when, as an attorney, he encountered judges who he believed were uncivil in how they ran the courtroom.
“[A defendant] may have been accused of violating the law, but as a person, I’m no better than that person,” he said. “People are owed a certain level of respect and civility, and I feel like that’s been lacking.”
For instance, if a defendant is frustrated or scared on the day of a trial, Patrzykont said, it’s important not to yell or disrespect them.
“My background in fire and emergency services has helped me in that I know how to relate to the clients who are stressed out or who are emotional,” he said. “[In the fire department], you learn how to handle those stressful situations, which is to show empathy and respect and show people that you understand where they’re coming from.”
He also said he believes the law is not always applied correctly in court, and he would like to correct that. In particular, he’d like to ensure that the law is applied equally to all people.
According to Kansas law, district judges are required to follow sentencing guidelines that Patrzykont believes ensure that court decisions are equal among diverse groups of people.
He said he would use discretion in certain scenarios to take into account varying circumstances. He gave the example of a $200 traffic fine, which could be much more burdensome to lower-income families than a wealthy family. In these situations, he said he would look at alternatives.
“A judge should be held in high regard, but not because of the position or the title,” Patrzykont said. “But because people can look at them and say, ‘They’re doing their job.’”
If elected, Candice Alcaraz, an assistant district attorney in Wyandotte County, would be the first Black female district judge in the county.
She recalled when she was first starting her job at the county courthouse, she looked at all of the portraits of district judges and noticed that none of them looked like her. But after hearing encouragement from other courthouse staff members and people close to her, she decided she wanted to change that.
It’s frowned upon in Wyandotte County to challenge an incumbent judge in an election. But Alcaraz said that only made her feel more strongly that it was the right thing to do.
“You do not challenge a seated judge. I don’t know who the ‘they’ are, but you wait until ‘they’ tell you it’s your time,” she said. “No one is going to tell me when it is my time.”
In a courtroom where she would be the sitting judge, Alcaraz wants people to feel like their case is valuable and they are respected.
“I’m not looking for a way to hurry up and get things moving, going through the numbers. That’s not me,” she said. “Beyond that, I want to bring a more community-oriented approach … We need to repair society just as much as we are repairing the victims in our cases.”
Alcaraz said she is interested in pursuing community service in some sentences, and she said she’s interested in partnering with local organizations to best serve the community.
Though she said she would not hesitate to send someone to prison if necessary, her goal is to reduce recidivism and to pursue justice in a way that proactively prevents future crime and violence.
“Rather than waiting for somebody to be on their fourth, fifth or sixth crime, when the system is completely stacked against them,” she said. “I want to do that on the front end so that maybe we have less people coming back around, doing more serious crimes or doing more crimes in general.”
Alcaraz believes that being a judge for the community starts with leading by example.
“The community should know who you are and what you’re about,” she said. “They should be able to see you as a leader in the community doing positive things for the community.”
Wes Griffin is an incumbent judge, first elected in 2008, who wants to first and foremost make sure that both the state and the defense follow the law.
“You have to understand the law, you have to know the various nuances of the law and you have to apply it equally across the board to both sides,” he said. “Coming into any case, you can’t force your agenda or philosophy on a given case.”
Griffin said his understanding of the law and the various sentencing guidelines is bolstered by decades of experience on the bench. Prior to his first election as a Wyandotte County judge, he worked in the district attorney’s and city attorney’s offices as a prosecutor. He’s also done work in civil cases for the city in workers’ compensation.
“I’ve been in the criminal justice system my entire career, dating back to 1980,” he said. “The experience of being there and doing that for those years is so helpful and so invaluable. And I think it assists judges who have been on the bench for a while, in having much better findings, legally justifiable findings and proper findings.”
Griffin said different judges bring different personalities to the courtroom. When residents enter his courtroom, he said they can expect him to de-escalate tension while firmly establishing expectations for their behavior.
“There are hearings where you — and I have had to do it — have to raise your voice and say, ‘No, you can’t yell,’” he said. “They’re coming into a situation where they’ve lost a family member or where they’ve been injured, and you understand their idea. You just try to manage the way it’s expressed.”
In his years as a district judge, Griffin said that his biggest mark of success is a drug court program that has resulted in more than 100 people becoming sober.
“We take people who are addicts and work with them in a lengthy program,” he said. “Most often, it is their last opportunity to become sober and change their lifestyle, or they face a pretty decent prison sentence … Those are immensely valuable opportunities.”