Bud Kennedy

Don't like how Marfa judge handled Scalia’s death? Tell the Lege

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara has 25 years’ previous experience as a justice of the peace.
Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara has 25 years’ previous experience as a justice of the peace. WFAA-TV

Just because somebody dies in Texas, it isn’t automatically suspicious.

From the way some Texans and Americans are talking about Presidio County and its county judge, Cinderela Guevara, you’d think nobody had ever died naturally near the border.

Guevara, 54, a Marfa Democrat, is new as the county judge in that Big Bend town, but she is not new at certifying deaths like that of Justice Antonin Scalia.

She definitely does not deserve to be the target of political or racial complaints.

In 25 years in her previous role as the Precinct 1 justice of the peace, it was Guevara who got the call whenever someone was found dead.

That’s the way the law has worked in rural Texas since the days of Judge Roy Bean.

“She’s a very good judge,” said Matagorda County Justice of the Peace Suzan Thompson, who has presented training lessons for other county officials on certifying death and on Texas’ laws involving inquests.

This was no different from what happens dozens of times a day all over Texas.

Attorney Bronson Tucker of the Texas Justice Court Training Center in San Marcos

“It’s up to a judge or justice of the peace to determine if a person died of unlawful means or unnatural causes,” Thompson said by phone.

“We can get all the advice we want. I can pick up a phone and call law officers, doctors or a medical examiner. It’s part of the hours of training.”

Only a handful of Texas counties support a separate professional medical examiner’s office or forensic pathology lab. In Texas, most deaths are reviewed by an elected justice of the peace, or if one isn’t available that day (as in Presidio County), the county judge.

When the cause of death is uncertain, county officials also must weigh whether an autopsy is worth the cost: $2,000-plus.

“I know some judges have said the money is a concern for their county,” Thompson said: “But the decision is solely up to the judge. Only the [district attorney] can overrride it.”

Guevara has been quoted as saying she was called by the Presidio County sheriff, who told her that neither he nor a U.S. marshal saw any sign of foul play. She talked by phone with Rear Adm. Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician for Congress and the Supreme Court. And then she certified Scalia’s death.

Under Texas law, only a Presidio County justice of the peace or the district attorney can reopen the inquiry and order an autopsy.

“You’ll always have conspiracy theories,” said Bronson Tucker, an attorney with the Texas Justice Court Training Center in San Marcos, where hundreds of rural judges are trained yearly.

“This was no different from what happens dozens of times a day all over Texas.”

Tucker said it’s “not uncommon” for judges to certify a cause of death without going to the scene. They “talk to people on the scene, and talk to the person’s doctor.”

They can go examine the body if needed, or order an autopsy.

But Presidio County officials have said Scalia’s family did not want that.

“Very few judges are going to override that,” Thompson said.

Guevara wound up making a fiscally prudent decision for her taxpayers, using the communication tools and long-distance judicial authority made available to her under state law.

If you don’t like it, talk to the Texas Legislature.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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