Sylvia Holmes, associate director at Legal Services for Students, has helped UT students in legal trouble for the past seven years, acting like a compass in the courtroom.
“It’s unique working at UT,” Holmes said. “I get to deal one-on-one with so many people — a judge does that. The best thing I do is eliminate that white-knuckled, scared moment, just clearing up the big mystery of what happens next...getting someone out of that anxious, scared moment is gonna help them make better decisions.”
From underage drinking tickets to conflicts with landlords, Holmes has given free legal consultations and occasionally goes to court with students who feel unfamiliar with the law and bewildered in the courtroom. Holmes is now running to be judge next year for Travis County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3.
A 2003 UT alumna herself, Holmes said the best part of her job is helping students find clarity in the law. If an injustice is realized, she fights for students in court.
In May 2012, Holmes took a landlord to court when it became revealed that he exploited an international student for thousands of dollars in arbitrary costs and expected not to be legally challenged since the student would only temporarily live in the United States
Holmes ultimately won the case in 2014 and recovered the student’s money.
“We took him to court and kicked his butt,” Holmes said. “(When) we win, all students in this situation are going to win.”
Since most students are unfamiliar with their legal rights, Holmes said she tries to demystify the legal process as much as possible through instructional sheets and ordinary English. As judge, Holmes said she hopes to make the law accessible for the general public as well.
“What I see for 18 to 25-year-olds of the best and brightest in our state is confusion about their basic rights — their leasing, their cars, their utility bills,” Holmes said. “If our students at UT experience this with such magnitude imagine what the rest of our community is having.”
Similar to the flood of students who enter her office with alcohol offenses after spring break, Holmes said the Justice of the Peace court handles many cases of modest significance, such as public intoxication and other class C misdemeanors and civil cases worth up to $10,000.
The current judge, Susan Steeg, ran unopposed in the last election and has presided over JP3 for the past 10 years. Holmes said she plans to modernize the court by making court appearance dates and step-by-step explanations of procedures available online.
“Regular routine matters,” Holmes said. “If you’re here to apply for a wedding license or you’re here to fix an old ticket...we don’t need to play hide and seek with that stuff. It should be easy to access and clear.”
Since the majority of cases that JP3 handles involve average citizens, Holmes said she feels an urgency to establish stronger trust in the justice system because her jurisdiction typically molds the public’s view of the law.
“I want people to like the court and their justice system, and too often we hear, especially in the last election cycle, a dislike for the government,” Holmes said. “Well, we’re that third important branch. Your court should be — of all things — the people’s court.”