Texpatriate endorses for Railroad Commissioner

The Texas Railroad Commission, despite its byzantine name, is responsible for the regulation of oil and gas throughout the state. It is an enormous responsibility for a state so inextricably linked with the creation of energy. With three commission members serving staggered terms, a sole commissioner seat will be up for election this year.

The incumbent, Barry Smitherman, has been a terrible commissioner in his limited tenure. Between focusing on red-meat social issues that have little to do with energy and neglecting his duties for an ill-fate run toward higher office, Smitherman has — as Chairman of the Commission — reduced the position to a rubber stamp for the oil and gas industry. With Smitherman retiring, Republican candidate Ryan Sitton looks certain to continue this legacy.

Now, in the midst of Texas’ biggest oil boom since the 1970s, being friendly to the industry is not necessarily a bad thing. The recent rev-up in production has the capacity to revitalize the lives of countless Texans and send our economy into overdrive. But the point of a regulatory body is not merely to be a cheerleader for the industry, but to protect the public and foster policies for the benefit of the entire community.

Sitton, an oil and gas engineer, appears complacent to continue along with business as usual. On the other hand, Steven Brown, the Former Chairman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, wants to ensure people are protected above all else. Though not classically trained in the industry, Brown has proven himself to have an impressive mastery of all the issues that the commission faces.

At issue here more than anything else is the dispute over hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as “fracking.” The process involves injecting high-pressure liquid into shale rocks that contain natural gas and petroleum, making previously unreachable resources available. Without a doubt, these processes have left a positive mark on Texas. They have helped expedite weaning us off of foreign energy sources, as well as enriching portions of the state and jumpstarting the economy.

But real concerns remain. Namely, the freshwater of these regions has been comprised and some evidence exists that these procedures can cause minor earthquakes. This has prompted many liberals and others affected to call for an outright ban, if not a moratorium, on the measure.

For Brown’s part, he has been more tempered. He wishes to end some fracking into those areas with serious earthquakes, as well as ban the use of freshwater for fracking, but he does not merely want to end the largely successful practice. This measured approach is far superior to Sitton’s mindset, which is to ignore the myriad complications that have arisen.

Additionally, we simply cannot take Sitton seriously as a candidate considering his serious ethical breaches throughout the campaign. As someone who has a significant interest in many oil companies, Sitton originally defiantly stated that he would not divest his interests if elected, despite the fact that he would have regulatory power over those same companies. Only much later did he reverse his stance in an insincere effort to carry favor with voters. This led us against endorsing Sitton in the Republican primary for the post, despite the fact that we agreed with him on policy more than his opponent in that election.

Thus, it would be an easy choice to support Brown in this election. But we also tend to agree with him more on policy choices and actual issues that the commission might face. He wants to be for the people, Sitton wants to be for the profits.

Accordingly, this board endorses Steven Brown for Railroad Commissioner.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate endorses for District Attorney

For years, Harris County was run by a brutal and harsh District Attorney, Johnny Holmes, who turned the office into the nation’s busiest source of death sentences. As this board has opined in the past, we think that the death penalty is tantamount to unjustified killing. In addition to the outright cruelty used in depriving a fellow human being who is not actively threatening you their life, the penalty has been carried out arbitrarily and capriciously. Black defendants are targeted more frequently by prosecutors, and sentenced to death by juries with even more reliability.

While, sadly, both candidates for District Attorney support this appalling practice, only one actively trumpets her support of the penalty and even appears proud of it. Furthermore, only one candidate supports the status quo on the racially biased policies that have contributed to many of this county’s problems regarding criminal justice. That candidate is the incumbent, Republican Devon Anderson. Her policies have failed Harris County, and they should be wholeheartedly repudiated.

Anderson was first appointed about a year ago by Governor Rick Perry to this post following the death of her husband, Mike Anderson, in the post. Devon Anderson, however, also had a illustrious career as both a prosecutor and a Judge. Sadly, she has continued the misguided policies of her predecessor. Be it the death penalty, the elimination of the DIVERT program to deal with driving while intoxicated, illogical grand jury systems or policies on marijuana, Anderson is just not the right candidate for Harris County.

Kim Ogg, the Democratic candidate for this post, is completely different. She has a record as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor, being able to see both sides of the courtroom in an honest and noble manner. As the longtime director of Crime Stoppers, she also has the capacity to examine crime from a more objective point of view, seeing it as something to be prevented rather than just punished.

Ogg is also a little less eager on the death penalty, and she advocates for reforming the venal grand jury system, which allows the political buddies of Criminal District Judges to recruit their friends. This has reduced the grand jury system into little more than a rubber stamp for zealous prosecutors. Under Ogg’s purview, combined hopefully with certain Judges (such as Susan Brown) being defeated for re-election, hopefully this system can be reworked into an effective check and balance once more.

Perhaps most importantly, Ogg has taken bold stands on the need to reform asinine policies on drugs within Harris County. She would rescind the so-called “trace case” policy, which prosecutes residents with felonies for even mere residues of cocaine in dramatically capricious fashion. She would also take advantage of an obscure state law to cite-and-release all those caught with small amounts of marijuana, then work out pre-trial diversion programs that would dismiss all charges if a small amount of community service is rendered. This board supports the full legalization of marijuana, but given that the District Attorney cannot change the law, we believe Ogg’s program — known by the acronym G.R.A.C.E. — is the next best thing. Anderson has only offered a lackluster imitation.

More so than almost any other election at the local level, Harris County voters have a very clear choice this November. They can go with another predictable Republican, trigger happy with putting people to death and complacent with a horrifying status quo that is corrupt, racist and ineffective. Alternatively, voters could rightly repudiate these realities and choose a candidate with an actual plan to shake up the DA’s office for the better.

Accordingly, this board endorses Kim Ogg for District Attorney.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate endorses for Juvenile Courts

Juvenile Courts are very special places within our society. The entire process is deemed civil, and not criminal. Rehabilitation — and thus not punishment — is the main priority. The accused are not defendants, but respondents. They are not convicted or found guilty, but rather adjudicated delinquent. And sentencing is not levied for merely punitive measures; rather, the court finds a solution that teaches the respondent what he or she did was incorrect while still trying to rehabilitate the person back into society as a productive citizen.

Basically, more than any other court, it is absolutely imperative that Judges are found who are not trying to prosecute from the bench, who are not merely attempting to woo the Pachyderm Club with their “tough on crime” stances and who are willing to ensure society continues being there for the troubled youths among us. It is not enough to find Judges who want to teach right from young. We need to find Judges who will work with these young people in hope that they can truly turn their lives around.

There are three Juvenile District Courts up for election this year, but only two feature contested elections. The unopposed Judge, Mike Schneider of the 315th District Court, is an adequate jurist who deserves a vote of confidence. In the other races, we endorse the Democrats.

313th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Glenn Devlin is a longtime officeholder at the Juvenile Justice center. On the bench since 2011, this freshman Judge has already left his mark upon the courts. A former defense attorney for juvenile matters with more than 30 years of experience, Devlin, a Republican, has the right temperament for the bench. Respondents before his court are dealt with fairly and nobly, and are given a fighting chance to reenter society a better person.

We also like Devlin’s Democratic opponent, Tracy Good. He has a good plan to modernize the courts, as well as address some of the equitable concerns they face. Be it the cultural problems that causes what he calls the “cradle to prison pipeline” or the bureaucracy that blocks much proposed change, Good has a grander plan at hand. Rather than faulting any specific actions of the incumbent, which we think have been admirable in most cases, Good seeks to improve the entire juvenile court system.

He wants to reform the inept ad litem procedures, which we have opined against a plethora of times. He also wants to increase collaboration between the courts and the Public Defender’s office, as well as greatly reform elements of how the courts do business. They are ambitious goals, and will require a lot of work to achieve. But we agree that they are good goals to set, and we think a Judge who would work toward them is worthy of support. Perhaps even more than a fair and balanced Judge who we still believe in. This was one of our toughest decisions.

Devlin is a tried and true choice, the safe bet to be a compassionate and fair adjudicator. But Good represents those who still want to do more, those willing to take a chance. Both are good options. Personally, we are going with the latter.

Accordingly, this board endorses Tracy Good for the 313th District Court.

314th DISTRICT COURT
Judge John Phillips, a three term Republican incumbent, has a mixed record. Harris County just deserves better. His Democratic opponent, Natalia Oakes, is a spectacularly well qualified attorney who simply needs to be elected to the bench. All around better qualified and better tempered to deal with these unique and important types of disputes and issues, Oakes would be a great asset to Harris County.

Oakes has, in the past, pointed to the incumbent’s high rate of reversal by higher courts for terminating the parental rights, 31 times in all. She contends that she would not be quite so eager to enter an order that irrevocably ends the legal relationship a parent has over their child, and would instead engage in more judicial restraint. As an attorney with a long resume in cases of children’s welfare, Oakes undoubtedly knows the serious consequences of such an action, would be far more tempered on the bench. She’s the better choice, without a doubt.

Accordingly, this board endorses Natalia Oakes for the 314th District Court.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate endorses for District Clerk

Four years ago, a 27 year old lawyer and Community College Trustee made headlines by becoming one of the most powerful individuals in the county, when Chris Daniel was elected Harris County District Clerk. In the quadrennial since, he has followed his predecessor’s start by implementing ambitious reforms at the office. Daniel has done a great job of it too.

The office has broad powers regarding most filings involving the county, and it also oversees jury service. However, under Daniel’s leadership, the office has also begun to process passports, just as Federal facilities around the country have started cutting back. It is a profitable industry for the county, and it provides an invaluable service for constituents.

Furthermore, unlike his colleague in the County Clerk’s office, Daniel has skillfully guided his office into the age of electronic filing. While other departments of the courthouse have struggled to move into the 21st century with inconsistent criteria or choppy transitions, Daniel has overseen the process rather seamlessly.

Daniel has also made a name for himself as a ubiquitous presence at public events throughout the county, as well as a participant in public service announcement trumpeting the county’s biggest civic priorities. Be that the importance of answering the call to jury service or the need to file certain government funds properly, Daniel has made big improvements in the way his office interacts with the public. We certainly think that most of the other county officials, both Democrats and Republicans, would be wise to follow his lead.

Obviously, we would be remiss if we did not stipulate our deep opposition to many of Daniel’s underlying political beliefs. A frequent guest at Tea Party events, we lament that he has aligned himself with such troubling political ideology. But, as far as we can tell, any of the diverging positions we hold compared to him have no bearing on the job that Daniel does. He holds himself with integrity in all of his official actions, and politics is checked at the courthouse door. If that ever changes, we’ll be the first to complain. But we don’t think it ever will.

Judith Snively, the Democratic opponent for this position, is a skilled attorney and politician. She is more than capable of leading of the office, and we sincerely think she would do it quite well. However, we think Daniel already is an effective manager, and we typically defer to incumbents unless we can prove they have failed in some specific way. Snively declined to return a questionnaire to the Editorial Board, but she has more broadly been without effective concrete examples as to how she would do the job effectively better than Daniel. We hope she chooses to run again in the future for a County post, but this board thinks Daniel is the right choice this time.

Accordingly, this board endorses Chris Daniel for Harris County District Clerk.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate endorses for Family Courts

Ask any general practitioner attorney about the different disciplines of law, and you’ll almost always hear the same: Family law is the toughest to practice, emotionally speaking. Heavyhearted disputes, particularly involving the custody of children, require very serious and compassionate Judges. Unfortunately, the courts have become — in some cases — a figurative cesspool of malfeasance and corruption. The thankfully-former Judge Denise Pratt sullied the reputation of the Family Courts by intentionally backdating orders and unilaterally dismissing hundreds of cases. Her replacement, Judge Alicia Franklin, allegedly violated the rules of conduct for ad litem attorneys by overcharging her clients, sometimes as much as 23.5 hours a day, as well as apparently continuing the practice of law from the bench.

Similarly culpable are the Judges who allow this venal ad litem system to continue unchecked; but the shame does not end there.  Still more Judges have sought to turn their courtrooms into soap boxes for their political beliefs, improperly going beyond their purview as Family District Judges to wade into contentious constitutionality fights over legislation. Still other Judges have been wholly derided by attorneys that practice in their courts for unacceptable behavior on the bench, be it their demeanor or the irrational decisions that they make.

Still, the 10 Republican Family Judges on the bench in Harris County have some valued jurists among them. Unfortunately, two of them are retiring after long and positive records of service, and still others are running unopposed. In the six contests featuring contested elections, though, we go with the Democrats in all six.

In the four uncontested races, we recommend votes of confidence for three Judges: Roy Moore of the 245th District Court, Judy Warne of the 257th District Court and David Farr of the 312nd District Court. All are valued arbiters of disputes who, despite some disagreements, have been qualified and experienced leaders of jurisprudence. However, we simply cannot ask the same for Judge Lisa Millard of the 310th District Court.

Millard, first elected in 1994, made headlines late last year for improperly wading into a dispute over the constitutionality of the City’s spousal benefits program. She improperly put a temporary restraining order on the program, despite these arguments typically being under the purview of Civil Courts. The case was later removed to Federal Court, where her ruling was sternly reversed. Millard’s conduct, in our opinion, was unbecoming of the typical neutral and non-contentious role a Family District Judge should have. Even though she is unopposed, this board still urges a vote of no confidence against her.

246th DISTRICT COURT
For many years, Judge Jim York has been a model for the Family Courts. Always operating with the utmost professionalism and respect, he diligently presided over the plethora of disputes that came before his court throughout a sixteen year tenure. Likely our favorite Family District Judge, his retirement has prompted a heated contest in one of the few open Judicial seats in the county.

Republican candidate Charley Prine simply does not measure up to York’s grand legacy. Undoubtedly well qualified and experienced, Prine has served as an Associate Judge in the Family Courts for the past three years. He knows the system backwards and forwards, and would be hit the ground running on day one. Without a doubt, the recent Pratt fiasco has made a somewhat compelling argument that new District Judges should have some prior experience on the bench. If your concern is judicial expediency, Prine is your candidate.

But we have some concerns about his impartiality. Prine sometimes appears a little too eager to throw around his partisan credentials, in a way that makes us uncomfortable for a such an important post. The Democratic candidate, on the other hand, Sandra Peake, would be a great addition to the bench precisely because of her worldviews. Her open mindedness and non-partisanship stand in stark contrast to Prine’s  divisive rhetoric. We also commend her grand record of practice, serving not only as a skilled family attorney, but also in other fields such as bankruptcy and probate, which add depth to her understanding of the law.

Ultimately, however, both are good choices. But Peake offers new blood to the courthouse. She would be a fair and open minded jurist in a way her opponent just would not be. The Family Court desperately needs some reforms, especially regarding ad litems, and Peake would be the most effective vehicle to deliver them.

Accordingly, this board endorses Sandra Peake for the 246th District Court.

247th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Bonnie Hellums, another longtime veteran of the Family Courts, is retiring at the conclusion of this term after many years of thoughtful service. Like the previous contest, Hellum’s successor as the Republican candidate just does not measure up well. John Schmude, a local attorney, was chosen in a contentious primary over the far better candidate M.L. Walker, an Associate Judge. Schmude ran a nasty campaign against her, but more importantly, he never outlined how he would be a preferable Judge to her –or anyone else, for that matter. Come to think of it, he has done spectacularly little in his campaign, besides outlining the support of Republican interest groups such as the National Rifle Association. Unless they have a new lecture series on divorce we are unaware of, that isn’t a good reason to support him.

The Democratic candidate, Chip Wells, has superior qualifications and temperament for the bench. Wells has been an attorney for nearly 40 years, and according to just about any attorney worth her or his salt, has been a heck of a good one. Knowledgeable about the law, and pragmatic on contentious disputes, Wells would make a great Judge. With an inherently neutral demeanor, quite unlike his opponent, he would also be a much fairer one.

Accordingly, this board endorses Chip Wells for the 247th District Court.

280th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Lynn Bradshaw-Hull, a freshman Republican Judge first elected in 2010, has had a tumultuous past few months. The Houston Chronicle recently published a damaging expose outlining her apparently callous actions taken in the course of office. As the story goes, the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, no one’s idea of a liberal rag, has accused her of being improperly critical of victims of domestic violence. “Uncompassionate” and “demeaning to women” were phrases copiously used throughout the report. She even allegedly makes of point of grilling these victims, suggesting ulterior motives for making the serious allegations, such as retaining custody of children in a subsequent divorce.

Such remarks, which have been confirmed by individuals familiar with the situation, are appalling and saddening for an individual tasked with protecting families and children throughout the county. It is atrociously unacceptable to allow a Judge to commit these acts with impunity, and Harris County needs a big change.

Fortunately, the difference between Bradshaw-Hull and her Democratic opponent, Barbara Stalder, is as clear as night and day. A well-renowned Family attorney, as well as a lecturer at the University of Houston Law Center, Stalder’s experience is in defending children and victims of defending violence, not malevolently working against them. A veteran of Children’s Legal Services and Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, Stalder possesses empathy for those affected by such heinous actions, empathy apparently absent in her competitor.

Stalder would be a great Judge, but the choice is particularly easy here. Accordingly, this board endorses Barbara Stalder for the 280th District Court.

308th DISTRICT COURT
Much like the previous contest, we have some huge doubts about the ethics and the temperament of the incumbent Judge, James Lombardino. A bombastic Republican, he has sullied the integrity of his court on multiple occasions. Lombardino maintains what appears, in our opinion, to be a nearly pathological aversion to awarding children to their mother in heated disputes. He manufactures whatever modicum of fault that can be cobbled together to take children away from their mother, often for the flimsiest of reasons.

On one such occasion, Lombardino took away children from a caring mother, because her boyfriend once tested positive for marijuana. His grand strategy as a result of this show of law and order bravado was to send the children off to their biological father, whose interaction therewith was quite limited. The actions taken were even over the recommendation of the ad litem in this case, coincidentally the Democratic candidate in another contest.

Lombardino’s Democratic opponent would be a far more impartial and fair Judge. Jim Evans, a prominent family attorney, would have the compassion and the integrity to lead this wayward bench back into the light. He would look over custody battles with an open mind, and always follow the law to do what was correct. Once again, we think he would be a good Judge, but considering the incumbent, it is an easy choice.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jim Evans for the 308th District Court.

309th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Sherri Dean has served on this bench for about six years. She is generally somewhat levelheaded, but has developed a reputation for being a little bit abrasive on the bench. Dean, a ubiquitous presence at Republican events, also has a tendency to keep her partisan affiliations a little bit too close to the courthouse for comfort. All in all, she is a pretty good Judge, and those more intent upon preserving judicial expediency should vote for her. But, like any of the other myriad races we have faced such a scenario on, we think the voters of Harris County should take a chance on someone a little better.

Kathy Vossler, a well-season family lawyer with an emphasis on helping those going through crisis, would be an all-around better Judge. She has the compassion and the professionalism to take this court to a better place, as well as the experience to ensure it stays in good hands. Furthermore, we believe that Vossler would be better suited to guide the ad litem process out into the light for reforms.

Accordingly, this board endorses Kathy Vossler for the 309th District Court.

311th DISTRICT COURT
This is the most infamous court in Harris County, any way you look at it. As mentioned previously, the former Judge on this bench, Denise Pratt, committed a whole host of misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance while in office. Backdating orders and unilaterally dismissing cases, she has simply a disgrace to the bench. After she was nearly indicted for these actions, Pratt resigned earlier this year. A local attorney in family matters, Alicia Franklin, won the Republican primary to succeed her and was promptly appointed by Governor Rick Perry. This made her Judge Alicia Franklin.

Unfortunately for Franklin, whom we have been a fan of in the past, news has come out that suggests she has also engaged in unethical and possibly illegal actions both before and after taking the bench. The charges contend that Franklin overcharged her clients while an ad litem attorney, once having the unmitigated temerity to charge 23.5 hours in one day. She also arguably allowed associates to charge on her behalf, as well as continued operating her law practice after assuming office, both serious violations of judicial ethics and the law.

Sherri Cothrun, Franklin’s Democratic opponent, is a remarkably appealing alternative. She has an illustrious resume in family law, practicing for many years within this discipline, often as an ad litem attorney, where she has fought for reform from the inside. She’d be a great Judge, a tremendous improvement from the incumbent. The 311th District Court needs a strong personality to clean up Pratt’s mess, and Cothrun would be able to do that more effectively.

Accordingly, this board endorses Sherri Cothrun for the 311th District Court.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate endorses for County Treasurer

Upon first glance, the office of County Treasurer is useless. It is rather compelling, even, to argue for its abolition. What does it do? We’re not even completely sure. Something involving fiscal stewardship and being a direct intermediary between the government funds and the people. Our confusion is prompted by the fact that the incumbent, Orlando Sanchez, has done a rather lackluster job in office. For the past eight years, he has done little of consequence. As far as we can tell, the only time he has ever come out of the woodwork was to bluntly grandstand against METRO Buses that portrayed pro-Houston Texans messages. Nothing about fiscal prudence, nothing about transparency and nothing about working together with the public in a more effective way.

Granted, following the tumultuous tenure of former County Treasurer Dom Sumners in the 1990s, the County Commissioners’ Court stripped the post of many of its powers, rendering it comparably feckless. And the process to abolish the office would be long and costly. A Texas constitutional amendment would be a necessity, requiring 2/3rds votes of the Legislature and a statewide referendum. It would be a hard process, but left to our own devices, we’d probably see it through none the less.

But David Rosen, the Democratic challenger for this post, insists that the office is salvageable and that it can do good things nonetheless. He touts a plan to make county expenses accessible to the general public and to be an ally for all those who wish to examine the government’s coffers. Under current practices, the county expenses are buried amid a massive PDF file. These are the same tactics used by elusive attorneys looking to bury information during the discovery phase of litigation; it is unbecoming of the county’s ostensible fiscal watchdog. Rosen promises to streamline this process, making it easier to navigate and more search friendly. He also wishes to rescind the reforms taken by the Commissioners, and allow the office to audit, budget and forecast.

Rosen also wishes to use the office as a bully pulpit to advocate for domestic partnership benefits for county employees, irrespective of sexual orientation. While we wholeheartedly agree with his position, we do retain some concerns about if it is the proper role of the County Treasurer to be advocating for such positions.

Sanchez, on the other hand, has been completely silent on the campaign trail. We don’t what he would stand for or what he would do. Judging by his track record in office, not much. He also opposes abolishing the office, but he doesn’t support doing anything productive with it either.

Thus, even though we believe the office would be better off a relic of the past, Rosen is the right choice. His heart is in the right place, and he would implement reforms that would give the office a fighting chance of relevance and effectiveness. He would even go above and beyond to retain some important auditing and budgeting responsibilities. Giving the office some real power would justify its existence, and we would gladly like to see Rosen do this.

Accordingly, this board endorses David Rosen for Harris County Treasurer.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate’s Questions for James Horwitz

Editorial note: This is the twenty-fourth in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <info@texpate.com>.

Further note: Editorial Board member Noah M. Horwitz took no part in the implementation or publication of this questionnaire. Unlike the other Probate Courts, Texpatriate did not offer an endorsement in Probate Court #4.

James Horwitz, Democratic candidate for Harris County Probate Court #4

Texpatriate: What is your name?
JH: My name is James Horwitz

T: What office are you seeking?
JH: I am the Democratic candidate for judge of Harris County Probate Court No. Four (4).

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
JH: I have not held elected office before.

T: What is your political party?
JH: Democratic Party.

T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
JH: Only recently have the actual filings in probate cases become easily been accessible to the public. As an attorney I hear many complaints from other probate practitioners concerning rulings from the bench in this court involving lack of legal knowledge of or failure to follow the Texas rules of civil procedure. While the cases are still pending in her court, it is not ethical of me to comment further on those matters

T: What is a contentious issue that you believe the Court will face in the near future? Why is it important? How would you solve it?
JH: Two issues-

First there is the issue involving the “probate” club wherein probate judges appoint their favorite attorneys as guardians and/or ad litems. The process doesn’t pass the “smell” test and needs improvement by expanding the pool of possible guardians and attorney ad litems. The seminar wherein certification by the State Bar of Texas to act as either a guardian and/or attorney ad litem will be offered on Saturday mornings in my court and publicized widely. My appointments will be tailored to the needs of the individual party and/or ward requiring such appointment matched with the attorney whose qualifications and experience is the best fit. It is easy enough to create such a system. It takes the willingness to break away from “go along to get along’ system that currently exists. Although I have practiced probate law for 37 years, I am not by choice a member of the “probate” club. I have chosen in my practice to be free of any one label or specialty certification. I am independent and not beholding to the probate bar because of my varied and long background of practicing law.

The law provides family members with certain rights as addressed in probate court. The second issue involves the definition of what is a family. Every family is different and in the next 4 years (the term of office that I am seeking) the definition of what is a family is going to expand.   It is up to judges at the lower court levels to not be afraid to follow the law as dictated by the laws of Texas and the Constitution of the United States. Our society and our community needs individuals with varied and balanced backgrounds as judges so as to make fair and impartial decisions based on the facts and constitutional law every time, balancing the needs of the individual versus the needs of society and not allow ideology or public pressure to dictate their decisions.

T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
JH: The incumbent is a young bright person. I believe I am the better candidate not because of any particular fault of the incumbent, but rather because there are no short cuts to experience and especially wisdom. I have practiced law for thirty seven (37) years, more than twice as long as my opponent. Before that I was a social worker working with families in crisis. When I began my legal practice, my opponent hadn’t even begun first grade. My experience counts. For thirty-seven (37) years, I have represented thousands of clients in estate planning and probate court as well as at all levels of the civil, criminal, family, and juvenile courts in Harris County, Texas, including also a multitude of other jurisdictions in Texas. My wisdom counts. My sound judgment has been gleaned from nearly four decades of work providing assistance to individuals and their families through my dedication to quality, my understanding of the foibles of people, and my understanding of the law.

My experience and wisdom is the result of working, now in my fourth decade, with the grieving, the divorced, the criminal, and the incompetent. I am also a husband, father, and grandfather with aging in-laws and special needs relatives – all of the above provides me with a unique perspective to understand and address the needs of those that come before me as a judge in probate court. Voters in Harris County should vote for me to bring an independent voice to the probate courts utilizing the law and fairness with compassion. I will follow Texas law as I know it with the upmost regard to the Constitution of the United States.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
JH: I believe my experience as a lawyer best matches up with that of my opponent. I began practicing law in 1977. The 4 existing probate judges were licensed respectfully in 1973, 1980, 1982, and my opponent in 1997. My law practice is now spent helping families cope with aging and the transitions required in moving assets between generations. My varied background outlined above beginning with my social work experience wherein I helped create and managed the first two halfway houses for runaway children in Harris County, Texas (Family Connection and the Sanddollar) as well as co-designing the test for licensing of all child-care administrators in the State of Texas as well as my legal work with the general public involved in business and the court system provides me with the tools necessary to be a judge in probate court. I have been endorsed by the AFL-CIO Council of Harris County, Texas, the Harris County Association of Trial Lawyers, the Harris County Democratic Lawyers Association, and the Houston LGBT Political Caucus.

T: What role do you think a County Probate Judge should have individually? What role do you think the County Probate Courts should have as a whole?
JH: Judges should be impartial but not isolated. Judges are elected from the community, and judges should be involved in the community. It is the civic duty of all elected officials to not only do their job well, but also to educate the public relevant to the governmental functions in their office. I believe one of the obligations of the job of probate judge is to educate the public on the methods by which individuals can use self reliance and simple actions in order to maximize their decision making on their own well being and estates so that the government role’s is minimized as to determining the most personal decisions in a person’s life. That is why I will speak to all interested members of the public, and not only lawyers, on these topics now and when elected.

Probate involves the administration of the distribution of the assets of a decedent (one who has died) according to the laws of descent and distribution if one has died without a Will such as by granting an Order of Administration giving judicial approval to the personal representative to administer matters of the estate, determines the validity of Wills, makes orders concerning the provisions of a valid Will (by issuing the Order Admitting a Will to Probate), rules on issues of breach of fiduciary duties by executors and administrators of estates.

In contested matters involving probate with a Will, a Probate Court examines the genuineness of a Will and/or whether the Will was made under duress or that the Will is not the last Will written by the deceased person. It is the job of the Probate Court to decide which Will is authentic. Once that determination is made, the Probate Court appoints an Executor to fulfill the terms of the Will. In many cases, an Executor is named in the Will and the court appoints that person. The Executor then executes the Will according to the deceased person’s wishes as stated in his/her Will. When age, diseases, and injuries impact our abilities to be self sufficient, the establishment of a guardianship can occur. A guardianship is a relationship established by a Probate Court between the person who needs help – called a ward – and the person or entity named by the court to help the ward. This person or entity is known as a guardian.

In Texas, a person does not have a guardian until an application to appoint one is filed with the court, a hearing is held and a judge then appoints a guardian. When the court appointment is made, the person the guardian cares for becomes the ward. There are different types of guardianships available in Texas. They are:

  • Guardian of the person, full or limited
  • Guardian of the estate, full or limited.
  • Guardian of the person and estate.
  • Temporary guardianship.

In addition to individuals, entities and guardianship programs can be appointed guardians. Guardians have legal responsibilities and are required to perform certain tasks and make reports to the Court while providing assistance to their wards.

The Probate Court should look at the individuals and programs willing to be guardians and base the appointment of guardians on several factors including: a preference to appointing a qualifying family member as guardian rather than guardianship programs or court appointed attorneys.

The Probate Court also should establish how much freedom a ward may have to make his/her own decisions. The Probate Court should decide limitations on a guardian’s authority.

T: Would role do you think mandatory mediation should have in Probate law?
JH: I would require parties to engage in mediation before trial occurs. Many parties absolutely believe mediation will not work, and yet discover, once they go through the process, that outstanding issues can be worked through and their case either partially or fully resolved. It is one of my tenants in life that people are entitled and obligated to participate in as many ways as possible in the decision making process that affects their lives. I would ask mediators that wish to be appointed by my court to attend meetings with me to discuss ways to be more effective mediators in my court.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
JH: I once ran for a position on Houston City Council. There was no “D” or “R” beside my name or the names of my opponent. The public had to learn about my public policy positions and not through the lens of a label. I am proud to be a Democrat and to have the core values of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, one’s political party affiliation, while acknowledging that it is important, should not be the sole factor determining whether that candidate should be elected as a judge. A strong knowledge base, experience, and proper temperament should be the keystones of a good judge.   Our democracy works to the degree our citizens are factually informed about the candidates and not swayed by party labels or spin. Additionally, I echo the comments of a fellow candidate in supporting term limits for judges. Electing judges is a community responsibility. That responsibility filters down to individuals doing their civic duty and seeking public office. There is no shortage of qualified individuals ready to assume the mantle of a judgeship.

T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
JH: (1) I bring knowledge and information to the general public about estate planning and the probate court. To that end, I have spoken to many groups on this topic. As I mentioned above, I want individuals to use self reliance and simple actions in order to maximize their decision making on their own well being and estates so that the government role’s is minimized as to determining the most personal decisions in a person’s life.

(2) I utilize the community resources in Harris County, Texas to enhance the education and care of families in distress that I have come into contact with in my life. I did that as a social worker and now for close to four decades as a lawyer. To that end I am meeting with the Dean of the University of Houston School of Social Work to develop a program wherein graduate students can assist the probate courts in monitoring the effectiveness of the existing guardianships as well as to be resource for such families requesting guardianship.

(3) Preserving the civil rights of our citizens is so very important to me. To that end, I do not agree that basic civil rights are or should be subject to popular vote. When I graduated high school in May, 1967, it was still illegal to have a white-non white marriage in Texas. Unbelievable. Yet the general public in Texas as well as the Texas legislature seemed to favor it. Such laws were always unconstitutional in my mind, and finally the Supreme Court agreed. I have argued throughout my professional career on behalf of the civil rights of our citizens as guaranteed by our United States Constitution.   Minorities, women, the LGBT community, and special needs individuals already possess their civil rights. Our society needs to enforce those rights.

Texpatriate endorses in District Criminal Courts

In addition to the 15 County Criminal Courts that cover all level of misdemeanor offenses throughout the area, Harris County is also represented by 22 Criminal District Courts, all with jurisdiction over felony offenses. Of those 22 courts, 13 are up for election this November for four year terms. Among those courts, 8 featured contested elections. Much like our deliberations with the lower-level criminal courts, this board is skeptical of the total dominance that longtime Judges who are overwhelmingly former prosecutors have on the judiciary. Simply put, these courts need more individuals with backgrounds in defense work to be on the bench. It offers a fresh perspective but it also ensures we have arbiters of the law who indeed still believe in the presumption of innocence.

We also have some big problems with the way that many — if not most — of these Judges handle their grand jury systems. Using the venal “key man” option, these grand juries often serve as little more than rubber stamps for the prosecution. The Judges have failed in reigning in or otherwise regulating these processes at all.

Furthermore, we would be remiss if we opined in these elections without reiterating our total opposition to capital punishment. The barbaric, inefficient and capricious procedure is a stain upon our criminal justice system. Recognizing its continued popularity, we have been hard-stretched to find any candidates willing to openly stand against it. However, we believe that — on the whole — the Democratic challengers are more reasonable on this issue than the incumbents, all of whom are Republicans. We think that the Democratic candidates would be more prudent in allowing the penalty to be administered, though we recognize this power is largely delegated to prosecutors and the jury.

The issues of the most importance to us are neutrality, fairness and the compassion of the jurist. Like the county courts, we are looking for candidates who would not intend to prosecute from the bench, so to speak, or otherwise meddle in agreements between parties.

In five courts, the Republican incumbent Judges are unopposed. In the 228th District Court, Judge Marc Carter is seeking a third term. Carter has been a remarkably talented and commendable jurist, neutral and fair. Voters should feel particularly accomplished voting to re-elect him. Judges Jeannine Barr (182nd District), Vanessa Velasquez (183rd District), Mike McSpadden (209th District) and Mary Lou Keel (232nd District), meanwhile, have been qualified and experienced Judges, though we maintain some reservations about the partiality of their record in office. We recommend votes of confidence for them nonetheless, despite our misgivings.

180th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Catherine Evans, a Republican and a longtime prosecutor, is a relatively new sight on the bench. Appointed by Governor Rick Perry to office last year, she is running for her first term in office. Accordingly, Evans’ record is a little too short to examine with much rigor. What we do know is that she would bring the same trite mindset of a prosecutor to yet another bench. She has been a pretty good Judge. However, we think her opponent is also particularly well qualified for this post.

Rand Roll, a Democrat, served as a Criminal District Judge from 2009 to 2013. He won and lost both elections as a result of partisan winds, which is a real shame, because he proved himself time and time again as a laudable Judge. A former defense attorney, he ran a tight ship, often working around the clock to reduce his docket in any way possible without sacrificing the integrity of his court at all. More specifically, this board has been impressed with actions he took to respond to new technology regarding DNA testing. Nearly every candidate and stakeholder we talked to regarding this discipline of law agree that DNA testing is a very important issue for felony courts, one that they will have to face in new ways in upcoming years.

Thus, we are left with two good candidates in Evans and Roll. On the balance, we believe that Roll’s proven judicial record is preferable to taking a chance on Evans, and we think Harris County would be better served with a former defense attorney, not a prosecutor, on the bench.

Accordingly, this board endorses Randy Roll for the 180th District Court.

184th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Jan Krocker was a prosecutor for many years. As far as we’re concerned, she’s practically still one. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board, Krocker noted that she believed the role of a judge was to fight crime. Not interpret the law, not be a fair and neutral decider, but to fight crime and keep the public safe. Cursory observers of her courtroom will know that these troubling words have translated into even more troubling actions on the bench. After 20 years on the bench, Krocker all too often treats defendants with contempt and a presumption of guilt. It is a bad attitude for a judge to have, and definitely not the right one for Harris County.

While Krocker, a Republican, may tout her dedication to judicial economy, this is often done at the expense of the public’s interest in seeing fair trials and due process. On one such occasion, Krocker hurried a jury on a capital murder case to reach a verdict on a Friday afternoon, rather than allowing for a fair and more open-ended allocation of time for deliberations the following week. This is just one specific example of a long tradition of Krocker’s shenanigans in office.

Mark Thering, her Democratic opponent, is a defense attorney with a long record helping the public in Harris County. He would certainly be a qualified judge, but he would also be a compassionate and fair judge. Before Thering’s long record as an attorney, he served as a Probation Officer with the county. Such experience allowed Thering to approach complex criminal justice issues from a point of empathy, not contempt. Harris County could sure use another judge like that.

Accordingly, this board endorses Mark Thering for the 184th District Court.

185th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Susan Brown, a Republican, has almost everything going for her that lead us to not endorse Krocker in the aforementioned contest. The only difference is, she is not so brash as to utter her true feelings in public. But make no mistake, we believe Brown’s tenure as judge has been marred by prosecuting from the bench, unfairly entangling herself within deliberations and maintaining a worldview of contempt toward defendants in her court. She’s not right for Harris County, and the county indeed deserves better.

We also take exception with Brown’s method of grand jury selection. Brown, more so perhaps than any other Judge, is a passionate advocate for the corrupt “pick-a-pal” system, in which a Judge appoints a friend who in turn selects more friends to empanel a grand jury. These grand juries serve as glorified rubber stamps for prosecutors, and completely neglect their constitutional responsibility to consider the evidence against the accused to prevent frivolous persecution. It was also in Brown’s court that the infamous “Runaway Grand Jury” was seated that inappropriately and dishonestly defamed District Attorney Pat Lykos in the midst of her re-election campaign.

Her Democratic opponent, Mack McInnis, is a fine defense attorney who desperately needs to be elected to the bench. Harris County would benefit from his nearly unmatched legal acumen, as well as his compassionate and well-tempered ideas on both grand juries and pre-trial release programs. He would be tough, but fair and reasonable. Harris County would gain an invaluable asset with a Judge named McInnis.

Accordingly, this board endorses Mack McInnis for the 185th District Court.

208th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Denise Collins, who has served in office for more than 20 years, has a positive record as a Judge. We have some hesitation regarding certain parts of her record; overall, though, she’s been a good asset for the county in office. A former defense attorney, Collins, a Republican, brings a unique perspective to the District Courts. She is fair, knowledgeable and often works together with both prosecutors and defense attorneys to craft consensus benefiting the entire community.

Collins is part of an old guard of attorneys, one who is not merely obsessed with scoring points at Republican fundraisers or the like. She actually cares to serve the county that elected her, working diligently and honestly often under the radar.

Additionally, Collins’ Democratic opponent is not a good fit for Criminal Courts. Chuck Silverman has very little experience in criminal law and, while he has some good ideas, we are uneasy about supporting such a novice. While it is true that we endorsed a candidate in a similar predicament yesterday, the District Courts are simply a whole different animal. Rather than being a court with a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail, these courts quite literally deal with matters of life and death. It is just too risky to take a chance on someone without the requisite experience.

Accordingly, this board endorses Denise Collins for the 208th District Court.

230th DISTRICT COURT
First appointed to the bench by Perry last year, Judge Brad Hart has barely been in office a year. In that capacity, he hasn’t quite developed a reputation one way or another. Yet another former prosecutor, we will give him the benefit of the doubt that he has been fair and ethical while in office. If you are merely concerned about keeping calm in the courtroom and minimizing change, vote for Hart. If you think that Harris County can raise its standards though, there is another option.

Greg Glass is Hart’s Democratic opponent. A magnificent defense attorney, all those who have ever spent any time whatsoever at the Criminal Justice Center will be familiar with his abilities in and out of the courtroom. Experienced, qualified and compassionate, he would arguably be one of the best Judges Harris County has if elected. He strongly urge the voters of this county to make that a reality.

Accordingly, this board endorses Greg Glass for the 230th District Court.

248th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Katherine Cabanaiss, much like Evans and Hart, has only been on the bench for about a year. A former prosecutor, she has done a passable job on the bench and voters should definitely be hard pressed to pass her up for another term. But, not to sound trite, much like all of these other benches, Harris County would be well-served with a Judge who has experience on the other side of the courtroom.

Shawna Reagin, the Democratic opponent, delivers on these qualities. A longtime defense attorney, she also has years of experience both teaching the law and helping the representation of the indigent. Reagin also served as Criminal District Judge from 2009 to 2013, where she ran one of the more impressive benches in all the courthouse, a model of efficiency, ethics and compassion. She would be a great Judge, just as she already was for a quadrennial.

Harris County has an easy choice. Either more of the same or a throwback to one of the more impressive chapters of Harris County Criminal law in recent memory. Yet another prosecutor or a defense attorney. Another politician seeking to move up the ladder or a dedicated public servant striving to make the community a better place by providing justice for the accused. We think the choice is crystal clear.

Accordingly, this board endorses Shawna Reagin for the 248th District Court.

262nd DISTRICT COURT
Judge Denise Bradley, a Republican first appointed to this post in 2011 by Perry, will be seeking her first full term in November. All in all, we think that Bradley has been a pretty fair judge. She tries to adjudicate cases neutrally and pragmatically, without any of the politics. On most issues of law, our concerns have largely been placated.

Contrarily, our valid concerns with Bradley stem from a big ethical issue a couple years ago. In 2012, a good friend of hers, Mike Anderson, who at the time was running for District Attorney, filmed a commercial in her courtroom. He did this after “asking her,” not going through the legal mechanism needed for non-official use of a courtroom. The kerfuffle lead to David Jennings, a prominent conservative blogger, among others, opining she had perhaps violated state judicial conduct rules. While perhaps her interpretation of the law have not been marred by politics, we have some serious questions as to her ethics as a Judge.

Jules  Johnson, the Democratic opponent, would stand apart as a very ethical and sensible alternative. A one-time prosecutor who then went into private practice, he has seen both sides of the criminal justice process in a unique way. Furthermore, when speaking on his campaign priorities, Jules argues that the role of a Judge is to be a “neutral and fair arbiter of the law.” We completely agree. All those who personally know or have practiced alongside Jules can attest that he would, indeed, be such an arbiter.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jules Johnson for the 262nd District Court.

263rd DISTRICT COURT
Herb Ritchie served as a criminal district judge from 2009 to 2013, when he was regrettably defeated for re-election because of partisan sweeps. He was, in our opinion, the best Criminal Judge without exception in Harris County during his terms of service. With unmatched intellect, problem-solving abilities, ethics, pragmatism and compassion, Rithcie presents all of the qualities desperately needed in a criminal judge. Harris County made a huge mistake losing him as a judge, one they desperately need to correct.

Ritchie, a Democrat, seeks out rehabilitation and not just punishment for those accused before his court. He has worked tirelessly in reducing the overcrowding of jails and keeping all those possible out of them. He has been an effective advocate for competent representation for the indigent as well. Ritchie has even been one of Harris County’s best advocates for saving taxpayer money while in office.

For all these reasons, it is most important that voters absolutely restore Ritchie to the bench. But the decision is easier given that the Republican incumbent, Jim Wallace, has a reputation for prosecuting from the bench. Compared to Ritchie, Wallace simply lacks the compassion or mindset to be that good of a judge. He is obviously not the right choice.

Accordingly, this board endorses Herb Rithcie for the 263rd District Court.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority of the voting board.

Texpatriate’s Questions for Barbara Gardner

Editorial note: This is the twenty-third in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <info@texpate.com>.

https://mail.zoho.com/mail/FileDownload/Gardner%20Photo%20%231.jpg?accountId=2153885000000008001&msgId=2153885000001466001&filePath=2153885000001466001_attach_1&isOutbox=false&mode=mail

Barbara Gardner, Democratic candidate for the 234th District Court

Texpatriate: What is your name?
BG: Barbara Gardner

T: What office are you seeking?
BG: 234th Civil District Court

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
BG: For three years I was elected President of the Harris County chapter of the Texas Democratic Women (“TDWHarris’). In 2009 I single-handedly revived TDWHarris, which had become defunct, and I am still a member of TDWHarris. The mission of TDW is to encourage more women to take leadership roles in society, to provide education on women’s rights, and to encourage women to become involved in the political process, wherever it best fits their personal circumstances. President of TDWHarris is not necessarily a public office, but it is political and therefore relevant to this question.

T: What is your political party?
BG: Democrat

T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
BG: There are quite a few cases with which I disagree with actions taken by my opponent, based on my review of the Harris County District Clerk’s records. The most blatant mismanagement of his docket is the continually resetting of trials. This wastes both the parties’ and taxpayers’ money. It is exceedingly time-consuming to prepare for trial. Every time that a case is reset, the lawyers go back to their other cases. When the trial setting again draws near, the lawyers must re-learn and “get under their belt” all of the details of the case that was re-set, which is repetitive, wasteful, but necessary work. One striking example is case number 2011-17650, which has eleven trial settings. That is almost unheard of. Case #2009-79721 was filed in 2009 and will not go to trial until February 2015. There are other cases that have been pending for years in the 234th District Court.

Another problem is that too frequently when requests for action by the court are filed (called “motions”), usually pertaining to interim disputes in the case, my opponent orders the lawyers to “go work it out” in the hallway. My opponent often begins by telling the lawyers that “someone is going to have to get out a checkbook,” a veiled threat of sanctions. One lawyer told me about this practice, and so I sent a paralegal to observe a morning of motion hearings. My opponent did just what I described. Lawyers generally attempt to work out their disputes, based on the rules of procedure. When they cannot, they turn to the judge for assistance. It is then the Court’s responsibility to issue a ruling on the dispute to get the case back on track and moving toward a trial date.

T: What is a contentious issue that you belief the Court will face in the near future? Why is it important? How would you solve it?
BG: Based on the Texas Ethics Commission’s (“TEC”) regulations, I am prohibited from answering this question, as it could indicate how I might rule on an issue which could come before me as a judge.

T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
BG: I do. As indicated above, my opponent resets trials much too frequently, often with no reason. In one case that I reviewed, one lawyer even filed a motion to transfer to another court (which was denied) in an attempt to get his client’s case set for trial.

I was a law clerk (briefing attorney) after law school for US District Judge Carl Bue. I learned from Judge Bue how to manage a heavy trial docket, at the “knee of the master.” I will not reset trials over and over and over. While a party may need a continuance, I will not arbitrarily reset trials just because, after sufficient time for discovery, the lawyers “are not ready” – or for no reason. One or two continuances, maybe three depending on the circumstances, may be reasonable – but not ten! I learned from Judge Bue that issuing docket control orders and scheduling cases for trial with a definite, predictable trial setting causes the lawyers to get their cases ready for trial. When the cases are ready for trial, frequently the parties will settle – saving everyone money and resolving the dispute amicably.

Also as discussed above, my opponent is unable to deal adequately with interim disputes. A trial judge is something like an umpire in baseball: His/her job is to call the balls and strikes fairly. A trial judge’s job is more difficult, however, because the trial judge must study, read, and be prepared to make rulings on disputes. I will make rulings correctly, fairly – and promptly. Additionally, this removes the “gamesmanship” that frequently accompanies repetitive discovery motions. I will study; I will be prepared on the law and the facts; and I will make rulings quickly on all matters that come before me, from interim discovery disputes to motions for summary judgments. I will not impliedly threaten the parties that “someone is going to be getting out a checkbook” and send the lawyers out into the hall to “work it out.” I will issue docket control orders that are meaningful. I will not permit discovery motions to go on and on for years, wasting the parties’ and the taxpayers’ money. I will resolve the disputes and issue rulings promptly by applying the wisdom gained from my many years of trial experience and my knowledge of the rules of procedure and applicable case law.

Trial judges must spend their days at the courthouse; that is their job. District judges have no one monitoring their whereabouts, no one to account to for their time, no one to question long or frequent vacations. I will be at my desk working diligently, and I will serve the voters who elect me by holding hearings and trials as needed, ruling on motions to move the cases along, doing legal research to remain current on the law, and writing the orders and opinions needed to dispose of issues that come before me. The goal is that each party, even though he or she may lose on an issue, feels that justice has been done.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponent?
BG: My opponent first applied for appointment to the bench in 2003. He was only a five-year lawyer. For the next ten years, my opponent continued to plead for appointment until he finally obtained Perry’s favor in 2013. This is so even though my opponent had tried very few jury trials as first chair attorney. (I have my opponent’s entire file from the Governor’s office.) As the Houston Chronicle has noted, “[Governor Perry] has grown too accustomed to getting his way when it comes to making sure that virtually every key position in state government is occupied by a Perry loyalist.”[1]

Governor Perry has “staunchly pro-defendant and anti-consumer” ideals. Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett explained that “[Governor Perry] has chosen judges who reflect his judicial philosophy, which Willett described as ‘unabashedly conservative.’ And he said that Perry understands the importance of judicial appointments. “[2]

My opponent has the solid conservative credentials that Governor Perry requires for his judicial appointments. My opponent was a member of and chaired the membership committee for Houston’s “R Club.” The R Club is a political action committee whose members are committed to “taking individual and collective responsibility for promoting a conservative agenda in Houston and the State of Texas.”[3] He was a member of the Maverick PAC, which also “promotes conservative principles.”[4] In 2012 he was a “surrogate speaker” for Governor Perry in Iowa when Perry attempted to run for president. Then – finally my opponent was named judge in November 2012.

Everything I have, I have earned through my own hard work, while my opponent became a Perry loyalist to receive his judicial appointment in return. Governor Perry continues to ignore the constitutional requirement that state judges be elected, thus stacking the bench with Republicans. As a result, our citizens do not have the balanced courts that ensure fairness. We need fair and even-handed judges to achieve justice in Harris County.

Among my opponent’s contributors are the Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC and Texas Conservative View PAC. Support by these conservative PACs further underscores the conservative bent by my opponent – in keeping with Governor Perry’s appointment requirements.

Writers say that this trend of money spent by PACs is being bolstered dramatically by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. “The real takeaway here is that we’ve turned the word bribery into the more respectable word, contribution.” [5] A study in Time magazine reported:

“Much is said abouthow much influence big-money interests have with the White House and Congress. But people are not talking about how big money is also increasingly getting its way with the courts, which is too bad. It’s a scandal that needs more attention. A blistering new report details how big business and corporate lobbyists are pouring money into state judicial elections across the country and packing the courts with judges who put special interests ahead of the public interest.”

Cohen, “Judges Are For Sale – and Special Interests Are Buying,” Time Magazine, October 31, 2011.[6]

All of this further emphasizes the problem with Governor Perry’s system of appointing judges who then become the “incumbents.” Lawyers and law firms tend to support an incumbent, no matter his/her qualifications. Lawyers in Harris County have told me outright that it is their firm’s policy always to support the incumbent. This makes a challenge by an outsider – again, no matter the qualifications – extremely difficult.

Harris County citizens should vote for me because, one, I am considerably more qualified and experienced for the position of civil district judge than my appointed opponent; two, I am more organized and experienced in trial matters and can better manage the caseload than my appointed opponent. (I know this because I have studied my opponent’s docket of cases online in the Harris County District Clerk’s records.) And, three, I have the patience and judicial temperament that it takes to be a good trial judge.

T: What role do you think a Civil District Judge should have individually? What role do you think the Civil District Courts should have as a whole?
BG: As stated above in more detail, the job of a district judge is to preside over the interim disputes while the parties are preparing for trial. This disputes generally involve disagreements between the lawyers as to how the rules of procedure should be applied. Also, the district judge rules on dispositive motions, such as motions for summary judgment, which would prevent the case from going to trial. Those are critical rulings because granting a dispositive motion is inherently denying a party his/her 7th Amendment right to a trial by jury. Those motions should be granted only in exceptional situations.

After the discovery of facts has been accomplished, the case is set for trial. During the trial the judge rules on what evidence is relevant for the jury to hear and what is not. Incorrect rulings on evidence sometimes will prevent the jury from ever hearing true facts of what occurred. Judges can sway the outcome of the case in these rulings. The trial judge also rules on motions by the parties to take certain actions, such as to dismiss the case without the jury ever getting a chance to deliberate. I have seen many incumbent judges dismiss cases in the middle of the trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge summarizes the law for the jury to follow in its deliberations in a document called the “Court’s Charge to the Jury.” This is another very critical point at which the judge can sway the jury’s decision by how he/she words the explanation of the law, or even omits important points of law that the jury should know.

Rulings by the Judge of the 234th District Court and other district courts affect all Harris County residents, even those who are never involved in a lawsuit. Decisions by these courts are the beginning of binding precedents that other Texas courts must follow. If a district court case is appealed, the appellate court can affirm or reverse the ruling.   The appellate court’s written opinion, which started in the district court, then becomes binding law throughout the State of Texas. An appellate court often can be influenced by how the decision was written by the district judge. So, the decisions of our district courts form the crucial starting point of the civil justice system for Texas citizens.

Only when a judge applies the law correctly, fairly and equally will the parties receive justice. After 30 years of trying cases, I can say that justice is sorely lacking in our Harris County courts. We need a change. I promise that when I am elected, I will apply the law correctly, fairly, and equally to everyone because – justice matters.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
BG: Since our State Constitution requires election of state judges by our citizens (which is one reason why I oppose Governor Perry’s established appointment system), the election of judges likely will continue for the foreseeable future. It would be possible to convert this into a non-partisan election similar to our municipal elections or, similar to other states, place judges’ names on a separate ballot at election time without a “D” or “R” beside the names. This process would encourage voters to research the qualifications of judicial candidates and elect the most qualified. That would have to come from the Texas Legislature, however. Based on past history, the Republican-dominated Legislature likely will not make any changes.

T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
BG: As above, I cannot give any indication on how I might rule on any issue, based on the TEC regulations. However, I can comment on improvements that are needed in the 234th Civil District Court.

First, Perry’s appointment system has gone “under the radar.” Voters have no idea that Perry is placing his “loyalists” on the bench, many who are not particularly qualified to be judges but who are very difficult to unseat. This system is well planned and thought-out, and it defeats our State’s mandate to elect the most qualified jurists. To the detriment of consumers and small business, we continue to see “Perry loyalists” who are pro-defendant, anti-consumer, and stalwart conservatives. This must change.

Second, as discussed more fully above, my opponent has demonstrated that he does not have the experience in the courtroom to manage a heavy trial docket. Trials should not be reset over and over, especially for no reason, as my opponent does. Delay benefits the large corporations. I know because I have represented corporations, and their mantra generally is to delay any progress of the case. That is because over time critical witnesses, who may testify against the corporation, forget, become disinterested, move – or worse, die. This has happened to me, and so I know of this process firsthand. Also discussed above, the motion practice should be more organized, with reasonable deadlines for filing any discovery or non-dispositive motion. I learned from Judge Bue that issuing docket control orders and scheduling cases for trial with a definite, predictable trial setting causes the lawyers to get their cases ready for trial. A reasonable docket control order will have deadlines for all critical events in the case, including a deadline for any discovery motions. Lawyers and their clients need to work diligently to prepare their cases for trial, which includes gathering the relevant facts through the discovery process. They also must have reasonable time periods and deadlines for completing the discovery process, deadlines that are enforced by the judge. Then when the cases are ready for trial, frequently the parties will settle – saving everyone money and resolving the dispute amicably.

Third, too many Harris County District Judges grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, which is documented in the District Clerk’s records. This is to the distinct disadvantage of the consumer and small business person, and benefits the large corporations. Granting summary judgment should be the absolute exception. Every party has a right to his/her “day in court,” which means a trial decided by a jury of their peers. That is our Constitutional right, and it should be held sacred.

CITATIONS

[1] http://www.chron.com/opinion/editorials/article/Abuse-of-power-5692132.php

[2]   http://www.texastribune.org/2011/08/12/supreme-court-elected-bears-perrys-stamp/

[3]   http://www.rclub.us

[4] https://www.facebook.com/MaverickPACHouston/info?ref=page_internal

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/roseanne-barr/campaign-finance_b_1860855.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=090612&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

[6] http://ideas.time.com/2011/10/31/judges-are-for-sale-and-special-interests-are-buying/

 

 

Texpatriate endorses in County Criminal Courts

Harris County’s fifteen county criminal courts are truly where the rubber meets the road of government. Thousands upon thousands make their way through the system every year, for all variety of misdemeanor offenses. The most common of these are driving while intoxicated and possession of small amounts of marijuana. No one’s idea of hardened criminals, these courts should be more about rehabilitation than punishment. And the Judges who oversee them should be willing to fight to that effect.

Among the most obvious differences between the fifteen incumbent Republican Judges and the ten Democratic challengers facing them is the career background. The Republicans, with only a couple exceptions, are former prosecutors while the Democrats consist of more defense attorneys. While we think that both careers should be represented on the bench, this board simply believes that the criminal courts could use quite a few more defense attorneys as Judges.

The rationale is rather straightforward. Simply put, Judges need to believe defendants are innocent until proven guilty, much like a defense attorney does. A prosecutor is the only exception to this rule, maintaining the opposite viewpoint all too often. For a courthouse stacked full of former prosecutors, one does not need to think much to realize how this could be problematic for defendants.

We also look to those Judges who, in our opinion, have been on the bench for far too long. Between racist emails, despotic rulings and callous attitudes, the Courthouse is unfortunately full of these types. We specifically have looked unfavorably upon those who “fight crime from the bench,” by attempting to usurp the prosecutorial authority of the DA.

We first recommend a vote of confidence for the five unopposed Republican Judges on the ballot this November: Paula Goodhart (Court #1), Natalie Fleming (Court #3), Analia Wilkerson (Court #9), Diane Bull (Court #11) and Robin Brown (Court #12). All these Judges share some of the troubling characteristics that we outlined above, but none have committed the truly egregious actions that would warrant a simple vote of no confidence.

For the remaining ten benches, we support 7 Democrats and 3 Republicans.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #2
Judge Bill Harmon, a former prosecutor first elected in 2006, is the epitome of the Judge who believes his courtroom is a fiefdom. An experienced jurist, the Republican made headlines a few years back when he unilaterally decided to ignore a program by the District Attorney to focus on rehabilitation and treatment for first-time DWI offenders.

The program, the DIVERT program, was spearheaded by former District Attorney Pat Lykos, a fellow Republican. Working together with pertinent stakeholders far and wide, Lykos unveiled this new program, which allowed for a form of pre-trial diversion (DA’s probation) to be completed by a first-time defendant in exchange for the dropping of charges. The program included some pretty tough provisions, arguably tougher than normal probation. It kept countless individuals out of prison and, in effect, from a life of recidivism. But the zealots came out in force against the sensible program, which allowed for a defendant’s life to be redeemed rather than ruined. Harmon took advantage of this criticism, and pathetically grandstanded against the program, inviting the news media to his press conferences.

When Lykos was defeated for re-election, the program went away. But in Criminal Court #2, it was already an ancient relic. Unfortunately, this is not the only occasion of Harmon prosecuting from the bench. He sees it fit to examine pleadings and meddle in the agreements between prosecution and defense.

Fortunately, the difference between Harmon and his Democratic opponent, Harold Landreneau, are night and day. Landreneau would respect the process, and not attempt to improperly inject himself into it for political benefit. A criminal defense attorney, Landreneau understands the proper role of a Judge and would strive to represent it. He has the pertinent experience needed, and the mentality to be a fair, understanding and impartial adjudicator of the law. We sure know that County Criminal Court #2 could use one.

Accordingly, this board endorses Harold Landreneau for County Criminal Court at Law #2.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #4
Judge John Clinton, a former police officer, represents business as usual in the Criminal Courts. He has a compelling story, a beat cop who rose up through the ranks, attended law school and got elected to the bench. But, like so many other Judges, he has a tendency to conflate the prosecutorial or police desire to be tough on crime with the Judicial responsibility to be fair on crime.

Clinton, a Republican, has done an satisfactory job on the bench, but Harris County can do better. We think that his Democratic opponent, Niki Harmon, could fill that role. Harmon is uniquely qualified to both understand the complex nuances of judicial management as well as the criminal justice system. She has served as both a defense attorney and as a Municipal Judge for the City of Houston. Serving in both of those roles for roughly the past 25 years, she poses the ability to both be ready on day one and serve as a superior Judge. Harmon is truly a gem of a candidate, and voters should reward her with a spot on the bench.

Accordingly, this board endorses Niki Harmon for County Criminal Court at Law #4.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #5
Judge Margaret Harris, yet another former prosecutor, is another jurist who is not right for Harris County. A Republican, she has been on the bench for nearly a dozen years, and has been a consistent ally for the State against the people. Despite being an ethical Judge, she is not the correct Judge for the job. Harris, like many of her colleagues, has a reputation for unnecessary harshness in some situations. What the county simply needs is a neutral arbiter, one who will act as a fair intermediary between the DA and the defense. This board is simply not satisfied that Harris has done or will do any of that.

Instead, we look toward Ramona Franklin, the Democratic challenger. A defense attorney, she has the expertise and the mindset needed to be a better Judge. But as an adjunct professor and a former prosecutor, Franklin is also well rounded in ways that her opponent simply is not. Franklin, we believe, would not ever torpedo agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Nor do we think that she would try to prosecute or defend from the bench. Rather, she would do what a judge should do: interpret and apply the law.

Accordingly, this board endorses Ramona Franklin for County Criminal Court at Law #5.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #6
Judge Larry Standley should not be on the bench. It is a travesty and a testament to the failures of his party and the county that he still remains in power. Standley, a Republican, first got in hot water a couple years back for controversial emails that he had sent, from his work account, to fellow Judges. The emails contained slurs against blacks, Hispanics, gays and women, to name a few, and were addressed to both female and African-American Judges, among others. The controversy, which is preserved in meticulous detail by the Houston Chronicle, prompted Jared Woodfill, then the Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, to demand Standley’s resignation. He refused, got re-elected anyways and is now looking to remain on the bench. Voters should not make the same mistake again.

And lest you think that Standley’s prejudice has subsided, he’s just gotten smart enough to conceal it from work emails. Any casual observer of his courtroom will all too often be appalled by what one finds. Standley runs his courtroom like his own fiefdom, willy-nilly vetoing agreements and making callous remarks. He has even turned his courtroom into a makeshift church on one occasion and conducted impromptu prayer and bible sessions from the bench in open court. Any individual with even a grade school familiarity with the 1st Amendment should see the problems with that.

Fortunately, Standley is not unopposed. His Democratic opponent, Linda Geffin, is remarkably well qualified in her own right. A longtime prosecutor, Geffin is familiar with every nook and cranny of the county criminal courts; though she still maintains a good respect for the process. We think she can take all the positives of prosecutorial experience without the negatives of “fighting crime from the bench,” so to speak.

In more recent years, Geffin has transitioned to a leadership role in the Harris County Attorney’s office, prosecuting Public Nuisance cases. In this role, she has put herself at risk and was even viciously attacked in an incident that was likely related to an ongoing case. Still, Geffin soldiered on, doing what was right above all else. This board is simply in awe of her dedication to the ideals of justice. She stands in stark contrast to her opponent.

Accordingly, this board endorses Linda Geffin for County Criminal Court at Law #6.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #7
Judge Pam Derbyshire, yet another Republican former prosecutor, is somewhat different from many of her colleagues. First, she fairly adjudicates the cases before her, and never seeks to become an activist judge who prosecutes from the bench. Nor does she ever improperly entangle herself in agreements between defendants and prosecutors. She calmly and consistently applies her legal touch to the cases before her on her docket.

Derbyshire also has an admirable trait of seeing the good in her defendants. She regularly works with defendants, particularly young ones, to come up with programs designed not for punitive purposes but for turning one’s life around. In a courthouse where there are all too many relics of yesteryear intent upon law and order above all else, Derbyshire is a refreshing change, particularly for a Republican. Additionally, voters would be wise to keep her in office given the breadth of her legal knowledge.

Sheila Acosta, the Democratic opponent for this bench, has been nowhere to be found throughout this campaign. With no website, no Facebook and minimal campaigning, we have little idea what she stands for, but that isn’t even the problem. Derbyshire is simply too good of a judge to not recommend retention thereof.

Accordingly, this board endorses Pam Derbyshire for County Criminal Court at Law #7.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #8
Judge Jay Karahan, a Republican, began his career — like so many others — as a prosecutor. But he later changed courses and become a defense attorney before being elected to the bench in 2002. Throughout that time, Karahan’s unique resume has become readily apparent, as he often approaches issues in a far different manner than his proseuctorial colleagues.

Like we said above, sole experience as a prosecutor can sometimes warp one’s opinions on the criminal justice system, causing a deviation from normalcy, so to speak. This adulteration of the “innocent until proven guilty” maxim is just not present in Karahan. He is a thoughtful, fair and impartial Judge that Harris County is lucky to be represented by.

Karahan’s Democratic opponent is Kelli Johnson, a prosecutor. In this mirror of the typical setup, we believe that Johnson is an experienced and qualified candidate for Judge, but we are quite concerned about the prospect of replacing the sole former defense attorney on the bench by yet another prosecutor. She would make a good Judge, but Karahan already is one.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jay Karahan for County Criminal Court at Law #8.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #10
After many years on the bench, Judge Sherman Ross is retiring at the conclusion of this term. Residents of Harris County should breath a collective sigh of relief, as Ross’ many years were maligned by improper prosecutions from the bench.

Unfortunately, the Republican candidate to succeed him is not much better. A former police officer, Dan Spjut would likewise seek to be a crime fighting Judge. We also have some major misgivings about the strategy Spjut used to secure the Republican nomination, banking on the unethical pay-to-play slates of local Republican powerbrokers.

The Democratic candidate, George Barnstone, also presents some concerns. A grand political activist in his own right, Barnstone has very limited knowledge of the inner-workings of criminal law and even admits he does not practice it. However, he pledges to learn quickly and to be a compassionate advocate for the everyman while in office. We know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a Judge Barnstone would not be an obstacle to defendants seeking justice. We think, on the balance, Harris County voters should take a chance on him. It might not be smooth at first, but it’s a chance we’re willing to take.

Accordingly, this board endorses George Barnstone for County Criminal Court at Law #10.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #13
Four years ago, Judge Don Smyth was first elected. Another Republican and another prosecutor, it would be easy to dismiss him as more of the same, but that simply is not true. For a lengthy portion of his tenure in the DA’s office, Smyth lead the Public Integrity Unit, putting him face to face with all those public servants who betray the public’s trust. It also taught him, we think, something about fairness.

Smyth is a vociferous conservative to those who know him, but his politics end right at the courthouse door. On the bench, he is fair and open-minded, and always strives for meaningful collaboration between defense attorneys and prosecutors. It would be against every fiber of his being to improperly meddle or second-guess their mutually agreed upon decisions, particularly since his court has worked so hard toward a goal of more efficient judicial economy.

A longtime Scoutmaster, sometimes to underprivileged children, Smyth also has an ability to see good in everyone, namely the young people who come before his court. Second-chances are sometimes given, but generally only as a result of a tough probationary program that truly requires defendants to turn their life around. Smyth doesn’t just do what would be best for his docket, or for his popularity at the next Pachyderm meeting; he does what is best for the community.

Jason Luong, the Democratic opponent, is a great attorney himself. He is a qualified, well-mannered and would serve the public remarkably well in office. We truly wish he could have run for another bench. But we just think that Smyth already embodies all the qualities we are looking for in a Judge.

Accordingly, this board endorses Don Smyth for County Criminal Court at Law #13.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #14
Judge Mike Fields, a longtime Republican Judge, will seek yet a fifth term in office this November. We think voters would be wise to ask him to retire. A notorious prosecutor-from-the-bench, Fields has torpedoed agreements between the DA and defense attorneys in the past for little reasons other than the supposed autocratic powers that a Judge has over his own courtroom.

Furthermore, Fields has developed a terrible reputation as a promulgator of so-called “shock probation,” where mutually agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys are not rescinded per se but are often added with mandatory 5 day jail sentences for little reason other than pure punitive vitriol. If Fields is so serious about revenge, perhaps he should have never left the DA’s office.

David Singer, meanwhile, the Democratic candidate, prompts some questions about his seriousness. His involvement thus far in any type of campaigning has been lackluster at best. But on the issues, Singer, a defense attorney, is clearly the superior choice. He would adjudicate issues fairly and respect agreements between parties.

Accordingly, this board endorses David Singer for County Criminal Court at Law #14.

COUNTY CRIMINAL COURT AT LAW #15
Judge Jean Hughes is a staple of the Criminal Courthouse. A Republican and a former prosecutor, she has served in office for nearly twenty years. While undoubtedly a bright and experienced jurist, she is simply not right for Harris County. Her mindset, like many of the other Judges, is simply not the correct one.

Raul Rodriguez, her Democratic opponent, is a criminal defense attorney with a prolific background in misdemeanor cases in particular. He would be a wise Judge, ready to go on day 1, and would also have the right mindset. He would not prosecute from the bench, nor would he attempt to fight crime from there. Rather, with the assumption that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, he would preside over neutral and fair adjudication of cases. Throughout his 22 year career, Rodriguez has earned our respect. He has earned our vote as well.

Accordingly, this board endorses Raul Rodriguez for County Criminal Court at Law #15.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority of the voting board.