Judge Replacing Nick Chu in JP5 Will Handle Evictions, Bonds, Misdemeanors

Rick Olivo, who will preside over JP5 starting Oct. 1 (Provided by Rick Olivo)

Rick Olivo wasn’t expecting to be selected as the next Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5, running one of the busiest courts in the county. But that’s the mantle he’ll take on Oct. 1, as current JP5 Judge Nick Chu vacates the seat to run Travis County’s brand new second Probate Court.

Chu, who was appointed to JP5 in 2017 and then elected in 2018, will be taking on a new docket filled with estates, guardianships, and – importantly – court-ordered mental health treatment, which can be a means for diversion away from jail. The Travis County Commissioners Court’s decision to replace Chu in JP5 was a weighty one – it’s a busy court, and incumbent judges tend to win elections in Travis County. After an application process and interview process without much fanfare, commissioners selected Olivo to take over JP5, where he’ll handle evictions, bond conditions, certain Class C misdemeanors, and more.

“This is really the people’s court. This is where the vast majority of the public has their introduction into the law, and I have the experience of having done that,” Olivo told the Chronicle earlier this month.

Olivo was an elected municipal judge in El Paso for 13 years (2001-2014), and since moving to Austin, he’s spent six years as a visiting judge for the JP courts, sometimes presiding over JP5. (He also started Don Rico Tequila in 2021, by the way.) Despite having the most bench experience of the final three candidates commissioners considered, Olivo considered himself an underdog for the seat. “I’ll be honest with you from the get-go,” he told us in early September, “I’m not politically connected here in Austin. I’ve been here 9 years. I’ve been a visiting JP for 6 years and a municipal judge here for a little over a year and a half. And I’ve been out of the political scene because I’ve been in these positions. I recognize these are political appointments. When you look at it on paper, in terms of the experience, the other candidates are very well qualified, but they don’t have the experience I have.”

Olivo said one of his priorities for the court is setting fair bonds, which requires efficiency handling a busy docket. When he was elected as a municipal judge in El Paso, Olivo’s docket was “much busier than this one here,” with a two year waitlist. After six years running the court, he said he had the waitlist down to two weeks.

“Going forward it’s about handling the docket and managing it where the jail is concerned,” Olivo said, working closely with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, “to make sure people have access to magistration [their first bail hearings] quicker, and access to PR bonds [no-cost bail], so they’re not being held unreasonably in the jail, and so we don’t have to deal with overcrowding.”

In terms of his temperament in the courtroom, he says his focus is recognizing the anxieties of people who come before him, and explaining clearly in either English or Spanish. “I understand that the public doesn’t like to be in court,” he said. “I understand when someone comes to court and they’ve never had access to the legal system, so I can explain it. I don’t just say Guilty, Not Guilty, or the Defendant wins. I explain.”

Since being selected, Olivo told us he’s reached out to commissioners for their input and expectations. They’ve made clear that they’re particularly interested in the county’s number of evictions, and Olivo said he’ll be looking for ways within the law to help tenants access resources that will keep them in their homes. Olivo said he’ll hit the ground running.

“The staff at JP5 is amazing and the transition will be seamless,” Olivo said.

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