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.

Chronicle begins Judicial endorsements

The Houston Chronicle‘s Editorial Board has begun its endorsement process for the 2014 general election, making selections in 6 Family District Court races, all of the contested ones on the ballot this November. They appeared unwilling to make any type of pronouncement on the unchallenged campaigns, but for the six ones that were, the paper of record broke overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats. Five out of the six endorsed were Democratic challengers, three of those being over an incumbent Republican judge. The sixth race, regarding Judge Sheri Dean of the 309th District Court, saw the Chronicle stick it out with a sole Republican.

The editorials, in exceedingly bizarre fashion, appeared to focus on the experience of the Democratic challengers. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the Democrats are mostly capable attorneys who would (and, hopefully, will) make good judges, but I find honing in on the candidates’ “experience” to be a rather strange reason to support them, especially considering that the Republicans are all either incumbent District Judges or have some experience as an Associate Judge. Strictly speaking, the Republicans have judicial experience and –since they and they alone control the courthouse– the Democrats don’t. Of course, I don’t think that is the only variable at play when making a judicial selection.

Furthermore, the Chronicle appears to not understand how experience works among attorneys in some important ways. As they always have, the editorial board intently honed in on which candidates were “board certified” in Family law, explicitly mentioning it multiple times. Board certifications are great ways to prove you are knowledgeable enough to seek specialization in your particular field, but the label is not for everyone. You generally are not board certified in multiple disciplines, which disqualifies attorneys wishing to diversify or those who may just functionally have to if self-employed. Accordingly, harping about that point is another poor argument.

Additionally, the editorial board took issue with the Republicans outwardly advertising their support by entities such as the National Rifle Association or anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups, going out their way to specifically lambast Republican candidates for it on multiple occasions. I certainly agree that such divisive political points should have no place in the court system, but the Chronicle’s indignation appears somewhat overblown.

Just off the top of my head, I know two of the Democratic candidates outwardly tout their arguably non-Judicial endorsements. Barbara Stalder, the Democrat for the 280th District Court, proudly presents her endorsement by the GLBT Caucus on her website. Jim Evans, the Democrat for 308th District Court, does the same with the AFL-CIO. Now, does this mean I disagree with them on seeking and advertising the endorsement? Certainly not. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, meaning the Republicans are similarly justified to advertise their anti-LGBT or anti-abortion views in a campaign.

But this isn’t about experience or outward political positions, it’s about integrity. All too often, it appears that the (all Republican) incumbent Judges set aside justice, fairness and equity. As Greg Enos of The Mongoose has remained particularly vigilant in reporting, far too many Judges are allegedly complicit in handing out lucrative ad litem appointments to their buddies, and some of the Judges once even were on the receiving ends of the sweetheart deals. The old adage may have been that the 1994 election, in which incumbent Democratic judges were tossed out of office in favor of their Republican competitors, merely replaced corruption with incompetence. But now, the Republicans have appeared to create a layer of corruption themselves.

Equivocating ever so slightly in favor of Democrats because of empty platitudes about experience is not the type of wakeup call that the people of Houston need in order to clean house down at the family courts. When the Chronicle editorial board makes an exceedingly asinine statement like “[Judge James Lombardino] has done a fine job in his first term,” it only demonstrates their startling ignorance on any of the activities going on down there. Are you kidding me? Has anyone from the newspaper ever even been to the Family Courthouse?

Speaking with those attorneys who regularly do business before his court, it appears that Lombardino –Judge of the 308th District Court– allegedly holds an unusual prejudice against women, cemented by what has been described as a terribly outdated role of the family. I was referred to one case where Lombardino went out of his way to railroad over the independent judgment of an ad litem (who, by the way, is one of the Democratic candidates for a Family Court) in order to take a child away from her mother (and give her to the father, whom had not seen the child since birth). The apparent offense in this case was that the mother once tested positive for marijuana. Unfortunately, I confirmed this was not an isolated incident, but part of a larger, disturbing pattern.

But you’ll never hear that from the Chronicle.

As for the decision to not highlight uncontested races, I would be a huge hypocrite for being critical of that, but it is worth noting that some of the unopposed Republican judges have muddy pasts as well. Judge Lisa Millard of the 310th District Court is a sterling example of this. She is infamous in many circles for not only placing a murky temporary restraining order on the City’s recent spousal benefits policy, but getting entangled in a rather heartless child support case.

There are some good reasons to vote Democratic for Family Court judges in Harris County this year; hopefully, I have delineated a few. But the watered down platitudes from the newspaper are not among them.