Texpatriate endorses for Civil District Courts

In our last but not least series of judicial endorsements, this board takes a took at Civil District Courts. Typically, these courts deal with disputes over large sums of money, but they also consider general cases regarding the constitutionality of state laws or action at the most local level. Once upon a time, they bustled with activity of individuals trying to seek justice against those who had wronged them. Sadly, since the advent of so-called tort reform, which we believe has mercilessly slammed the courthouse door shut on many, much activity in these courts has ground to a complete halt. Compared to these courts’ brethren across the street in the Criminal District Courts, which are always popping with filled dockets, the load over here is relatively light. It’s not unheard of to only have a few things all day. Our first recommendation, simply put, is to disband many of these courts for inactivity. But it’s not the Judge’s call, so we digress.

Looking at these benches, we need individuals who will be fair, knowledgeable and experienced. Those who will not be afraid of doing what is right, even if it is isn’t popular or helpful to re-election.

Additionally, we need to stipulate a general rule in our endorsement process that we broke repeatedly when coming to these decisions. Generally, we defer to incumbents unless a challenger can prove how they fail. We did not do that in this election, given not only the vast number of relatively new incumbents, but how many uniquely qualified challengers were running for benches. Many of the incumbents we did not endorse are still good Judges — who have definitively not failed at their jobs — nonetheless.

There are 11 Civil District Courts up for election this year. All of them are contested.

55th DISTRICT COURT
Our pick is Judge Jeff Shadwick, running for his second full term after getting elected in 2010. He previously served an appointee from 2007 to 2009. A Republican, he runs with courtroom with a pristine sense of fairness and equity nearly unheard of around the courthouse. Among the plethora of attorneys we contacted in our research for this race, Shadwick’s name repeatedly came up as a fair and just arbiter of the law. He is a good judge who should be rewarded by Harris County voters with another full term in office.

Kay Morgan, the Democratic candidate, is an equally well-qualified and well-tempered opponent. She would also make a good judge, but Shadwick already does his job remarkably well.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jeff Shadwick for the 55th District Court.

113th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Michael Landrum, a Republican appointee of Governor Rick Perry in 2013, has a short record a judge. Thus far, he’s done a pretty good job, but much remains to be seen. We think Harris county should go with the bird in the hand, and return Steven Kirkland to the bench instead.

Kirkland, a Democrat who served as a Civil District Court from 2009 to 2013 and has served as a Municipal Judge in the interim, ran a remarkably just and efficient courtroom throughout his years on the bench. Those who practiced in his court never had an ill-word to say. Most pressing for us, Kirkland even has a record of making rules that were right, even if they were not fair. One such ruling, a $13 Million judgment against prominent attorney George Fleming for gouging his clients, even cost him his job.

Fleming poured millions into an unqualified opponent to run against Kirkland in the Democratic primary in 2012 — as well as another in 2014 — who used homophobic and other caustic tactics in a despicable attempt to knock the noble Kirkland off of the bench. The strategy worked in 2012, but not in this year’s primary. Voters should correct this injustice, and return a great jurist to the bench.

Accordingly, this board endorses Steven Kirkland for the 113th District Court.

157th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Randy Wilson, a Republican who has served in office for three full terms, has in some respects forgot the true meaning of being an impartial adjudicator. In case after case, attorneys who practice in his court tell us that he favors big interests over smaller ones. Nothing against him personally, but that style of Judging just isn’t right for Harris County.

Jim Peacock, his Democratic opponent, is a well-respected civil litigator, who would better understand neutrality on the bench. Attorneys from across the political spectrum note his non-partisanship and objective approach to complicated disputes. He would make an all-around better judge.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jim Peacock for the 157th District Court.

189th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Bill Burke, a twelve year veteran on the court, is a fair and neutral jurist who treats all parties with respect while objectively considering their cases. An active Republican, he notoriously checks his politics at the door and fairly considers all the cases before his court.

Ursula Hall, a longtime Municipal Judge and the Democratic candidate for this bench, is indubitably well-qualified to be a fantastic Judge. Hall also is active in promoting fairness throughout the entire legal system, embodying progressive values in a way that is constructive but not detrimental to her impartiality as a judge. The choice between her and Burke is a tough one.

On the balance, we tend to think that if the court isn’t broken, don’t fix it, so we will stick it out with Burke. But we fully encourage our readers to consider if your priority is a progressive mindset on the bench rather than merely a well-tempered Judge. If that is the type of official you are looking for, Hall is your candidate.

Accordingly, this board endorses Bill Burke for the 189th District Court.

190th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Patricia Kerrigan often makes her courtroom a hostile place for plaintiffs small in size, sometimes playing irresponsible favorites for the corporation or insurance company. However, our misgivings with her do not end just at her service as a jurist.

Kerrigan has been on the bench since 2007, but she had a long career before that in private practice. The attorneys with whom we consulted with to reach these decisions all similarly lamented the cases they worked on involving Kerrigan, deriding her as dishonest in the practice in law. We have some serious concerns that this dishonesty may not have subsided following her transition to the judiciary.

The Democratic candidate, Farrah Martinez, is a well-qualified and tempered attorney. She would honestly and fairly uphold the law if elected. We strongly encourage Harris County to make that a reality.

Accordingly, this board endorses Farrah Martinez for the 190th District Court.

234th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Wesley Ward was first appointed to the bench by Perry in 2012. Much like Judge Landrum before him, we have nothing but nice things to say of Ward, but he is still largely untested as a jurist. In the limited circumstances we can judge so far, though, Ward has demonstrated himself as a force to be reckoned within the Civil Courts. If your priority is the efficient operation of the courts, and for competent judges to serve, Ward is your choice.

But we also like Barbara Gardner, the Democratic candidate. She brings up a few troubling points about the incumbent’s operation of the court, including resetting cases for trial a few too many times and possibly being too reluctant to adjudicate disputes. All in all, though, her strongest points are her long resume and experience as a civil litigator. Gardner makes good points about the courts in general being too anti-consumer, which we absolutely agree with her about. She also points to the surplus of experience she has compared to her competitor. Thus, we think she would be the superior Judge.

Accordingly, we endorse Barbara Gardner for the 234th District Court.

269th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Dan Hinde is arguably known as the most intellectual of any Civil District Judge in Harris County. However, what he possesses in brainpower, he evidently lacks in certain judicial ethics. A few years back, Hinde got in trouble for improperly finding the addresses of candidates in the jury pools, then sending campaign materials to their homes. A columnist at the Houston Chronicle opined that he may have committed a felony. Many around the city may have forgotten, but we surely remember. Hinde, a Republican, also has a reputation, like many other Judges, to improperly favor big defendants over little plaintiffs.

George Arnold, a Democrat, would be a fairer and more ethical judge. With more than two decades of the practice of civil law under his belt, he would be able to capably interpret the law and fulfill his judicial activities. He fully expect him to be a fairer adjudicator, as well one who will not abuse his office for political purposes.

Accordingly, this board endorses George Arnold for the 269th District Court.

270th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Brent Gamble, who has served four terms in office, is ready to retire. A Republican, he regularly rules against the little guy and is just not a good jurist for the people of Harris County.

The Democrat, James Hippard Jr, should sound familiar to every lawyer in Houston. His father, James Hippard Sr, was a hero in the local integration movement and a venerated Professor at the University of Houston School of Law. Like his father, Hippard strives to fight for the everyday Texan throughout his practice of law. Seeking deference for neither rich or poor, Hippard would be a fair and noble Judge if elected. With many decades of experience as both an attorney and law professor, he would also be ready to hit the ground running on day one.

Accordingly, this board endorses James Hippard Jr. for the 270th District Court.

281st DISTRICT COURT
Judge Sylvia Matthews, a Republican who has served for six years, is an adequate Judge. But her Democratic opponent, Tanner Garth, would likely be an even better Judge. With decades of experience, Garth would be both just as qualified as the incumbent but compassionate and open-minded in ways she just would not.

A business-litigator by trade, Matthews has a history of representing the big entities looking to clamp down on activity at the courthouse. A personal injury trial lawyer, Garth seeks the opposite. He has a history of helping people who have been wronged by seeking out justice for those who have been wronged. It is a noble background, one Harris County could simply use more thereof.

Accordingly, this board endorses Tanner Garth for the 281st District Court.

295th DISTRICT COURT
Judge Caroline Baker has a passable record on the bench. On the bench for about six years, she has developed the same reputation for arguably being a little preferential to bigger business interests. Harris County definitely has a good judge with Baker, a Republican, but they could have a great judge if they selected her Democratic opponent, Latosha Lewis.

An environmental lawyer by trade, Lewis has direct experience in litigating torts for those who have been wronged by malice or negligence. She understands that these cases are about more than just numbers and statistics; they are about people. Recognized by Texas Monthly as one of the top lawyers in the State every year for the past seven years, she would — without a doubt — be a fantastic addition to the courts.

Accordingly, this board endorses Latosha Lewis for the 295th District Court.

334th DISTRICT COURT
We find both the Republican incumbent, Grant Dorfman, and the Democratic opponent, Daryl Morre, to be rather well qualified and well versed contenders. Our preference of one over the other one is somewhat hard, as they are both good options. Ultimately, we think that Moore, a plaintiff’s attorney and son of a prominent labor activities, would be the better choice. We recommend a vote for Moore.

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.

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NDO petition fight heads to Texas Supreme Court

The Houston Chronicle reports that opponents of the local non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Houston City Council have taken their case to the Texas Supreme Court. Specifically, they are seeking an emergency order to force the issue onto this November’s ballot, following a contentious referendum petition effort.

As I recently explained, a controversy has erupted over the NDO –which codifies existing Federal and State anti-discrimination statutes (protecting against race, sex and religion, for example) onto local law, as well as extends new protections for LGBT individuals– following an effort to override the City Council, which approved the ordinance 11-6 last May. Under city law, such an ordinance could be placed upon the ballot for a referendum if enough signatures are gathered within 30 days. Opponents claimed they acquired more than enough signatures, but most of them were disqualified, either for not being properly registered to vote or not living within the city limits of Houston. City Secretary Anna Russell originally determined the signatures to pass the threshold, just barely, but a subsequent independent investigation by City Attorney David Feldman reversed this ruling. Feldman specifically challenged the validity of any signatures on a petition page circulated by an improperly registered circulator.

This is the crux of a legal argument made against the initial decision by Feldman and Mayor Annise Parker to not humor a referendum on this topic. Originally, the opponents filed in State District Court, and received a temporary restraining order by ancillary Judge Jeff Shadwick (R-55th). However, this order was lifted when the case went to the court of Judge Robert Schaffer (D-152nd), and mandamus was denied by the Court of Appeals. As I had understood the mutually agreed upon result to be, a longer hearing would be held on the matter in January 2015, and the issue would not be on the ballot this year. City officials have even stated that the full deadline to place things on a November ballot is August 18th, which is now in the past.

Evidently, plaintiff Jared Woodfill did not get the memorandum. He is seeking, as expedited as possible, mandamus from the Texas Supreme Court, ordering the City to certify Russell’s –and not Feldman’s or Parker’s– petition decision, thus placing this matter on a ballot. Woodfill, a former Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, evidently is not sold by the whole “deadline to place on the ballot” idea. Go figure.

Those sagacious followers of this publication I always reference will indubitably know I am skeptical of the life of the NDO if it is ever put up on a referendum. Young people and other socially liberal cohorts just don’t get off their butts on go to a voting booth. They’re just lazy, come election day; there’s no way around it. Opponents of this ordinance, though, and other broadly Tea Party aligned groups, would figuratively walk over hot coals in order to vote.

I had thought, however, that the best chances the NDO would have would be if the referendum were held this November, as opposed to next November or next May. However, its chances would be based on an aggressive and effective campaign to save the NDO. Given that it’s nearly Labor Day and such a campaign is not existent, those bets would surely be off.

All in all, my main point is that this is a mess, and while the Texas Supreme Court may be unpredictable, there is nothing to say the partisan nature of the court should lead it to intervene. The two Courts of Appeals in the Houston area are, sans one Democrat, completely filled with Republicans, and they pointedly denied mandamus. Thus, there is no reason necessarily to think that anything rash will occur. But I’ve been wrong before.

NDO dies another day

Pardon the brief interregnum, I have spent the entire weekend moving into a new apartment in Austin. I am returning tomorrow (Sunday) back to Houston for one last week home, before shipping up for yet another semester of college. Color me content.

The biggest local news that has transpired within this time has been an important update on Houston’s recent non-discrimination ordinance, now casually known as HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance). As I noted last week, a State District Judge (Jeff Shadwick) put a temporary restraining order on the law as a part of ongoing litigation over a recall effort. At the heart of the issue is whether opponents of the law compiled enough legally usable signatures to force a referendum on the matter. In recent days, considerably urgency has been placed upon this issue, given that many wanted a vote from Houstonians this November. Strangely enough, at least publicly, this appeared to be the outcome both sides wanted. While Mayor Annise Parker decided opponents were insufficient in their recall efforts, opponents have sought an injunction from the courts.

While Shadwick (a Republican) conducted the ancillary hearing on the TRO, the full hearing was in the court of State District Judge Robert Schaffer (a Democrat). He pointedly refused to issue the injunction sought by opponents, just as the 14th Court of Appeals declined to certify the referendum petitions. The end result, which both sides claimed as a victory, was that a longer hearing will take place in January of 2015. The non-discrimination ordinance will not be on November’s ballot.

The astute will surely know I am a wholehearted supporter of the NDO, notwithstanding the countless problems I had with its roll-out. The law itself protects against discrimination in all forms, including against the LGBT community. Individual complaints with the ordinance such as the asinine “men in the women’s restroom” fable are especially troubling. The bathroom is one of the easiest references to stir trouble and brew fear. It happened with the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and Sissy Farenthold even recently told me that it happened in the 1950s to keep women out of jury pools. For some reason, the mixing of the sexes in a restroom is a cardinal sin like no other, but I digress.

My longwinded point here is that the NDO will not be enforced between now and January, at least. How in the world is that a win for supporters? All the discrimination going on in this city will either continue with impunity or lack an efficient and cheap mode of recourse at City Hall.

Furthermore, if this comes up for a referendum in 2015, it will almost certainly go down in flames. Let me repeat, if the City is eventually forced to certify the repeal petitions, the NDO is dead. The best chance to beat back a referendum would have been this November, when I would have said a perilously close election occurred. The thing about midterm elections such as this year’s is that 40% of the population already votes, which already counts every tried-and-true socially conservative voice out there. However, in next year’s Mayoral election, turnout will likely be about 15%, while a freestanding election in May would probably only garner turnout in the single digits. As a general rule, the smaller the electorate, the whiter and more conservative it is. Furthermore, a small voting pool would allow for the ordinance’s opponents to flood the pools with their dedicated supporters in a way that proponents simply would not.

Additionally, if everything goes to heck, the worst case scenario this November is not nearly as bad as the worst-case next November. If the ordinance is overturned on a referendum any time, it would be an egregious miscarriage of justice that this city would wear as a scarlet letter for many years to come. But that would be the extent of the damage this November, because progressive causes are almost certain to get a shellacking in three months anyways. The Democrats literally cannot win any fewer offices in Harris County, for example, this year than they did in 2010.

But in 2015, a radically more socially conservative electorate could have a damaging effect upon not only the Mayor’s race, but Council races as well. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.

A summer of HERO

Note: For whatever reason, I felt like writing what I saw fit as a timeline. I promise there is some original commentary in here, so if you are not inclined to read my overview, just skip about five paragraphs down.

This is the blog post I have been waiting all summer to write. Once again, I apologize for not attentively following this issue in print since May. As I explained back then, I have been employed this summer in public relations projects involving ongoing issues at City Hall (the word “lobbying” has been brought up by detractors of mine on a number of occasions, though it remains to be said that I am not a registered lobbyist nor have I done anything that would necessitate such a designation). Thus, I voluntarily decided to withdraw myself from commentating on other ongoing issues. However, considering the issue I was working on has had a final council vote (check my Facebook page for my personal thoughts on that matter–largely positive!!), and my employment has shifted to PR/marketing aimed toward the general public, my conflicts have been removed.

The obvious updates since I stopped writing on this issue in May is that the non-discrimination ordinance passed (duh!). While the initial draft of the bill only required those private employers with more than 50 employees to adhere to the law, an amendment by Councilmember Robert Gallegos (D-District I) was offered that lowered the threshold to 15 employees. In review, the law prohibits discrimination against a person in private or public employment, as well as public accommodations, on the basis of the plethora of demographic groups protected on Federal law (race, sex, religion, etc),  in addition to sexual orientation and gender identity. City Hall can’t fire you for being black, Doe & Doe (Attorneys at Law) can’t fire you for being transgendered and Acme Anvils can’t put a sign on their front door that says “Gays not welcome.” In addition to the Gallegos amendment, Councilmember Jerry Davis (D-District B), under blessing of the Mayor, nixed a specific provision detailing the rights of transgendered persons to use the bathroom of their gender identity, not necessarily their biological sex. It is worth noting, however, that under the broad language of the ordinance, that same bathroom language is in effect still valid.

When all was said and done, the ordinance passed 11-6. Councilmembers Davis, Ellen Cohen (D-District C), Richard Nguyen (R-District F), Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), Gallegos, Mike Laster (D-District J), Larry Green (D-District K), Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), David Robinson (D-At Large 2) and C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) voted in favor. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A), Dwight Boykins (D-District D), Dave Martin (R-District E), Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) voted against.

Opponents of the ordinance congregated around claims of “religious liberty,” claiming that if being gay went against one’s religious views, being forced to accommodate someone would be immoral to them. They came back with a vengeance, circulating petitions to force a referendum on this bill. A few weeks ago, they submitted 50,000 signatures, far more than the required 17,000 to require a referendum. However, proponents of the ordinance independently verified all the signatories, and found the petitions riddled with violations of the rules. While there were surely many signatories who were not City of Houston voters, thousands more were discounted because the distributors of the petition for that page was not properly credentialed, which invalidated all the signatures on said page. Under such strict scrutiny, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney Dave Feldman held that the non-discrimination ordinance (now colloquially known as HERO, or the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, by the way) would not be challenged on the ballot. Opponents expeditiously marched to the courthouse.

After a little bit of jockeying back and forward between State and Federal court, the dispute landed in (State Civil) 55th District Judge Jeff Shadwick’s court. A Republican, he placed a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the law (redundant, for what it’s worth, because Parker had already enjoined enforcement) and scheduled a hearing on the validity of the petitions for August 15th. August 18th is the deadline, as I understand it, for something to be placed on the ballot this November.

My first and most obvious stipulation is that I am absolutely overjoyed that this measure passed, and I think that Houston is all the better for it. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t even be the 15 employee threshold (though certainly an exception for religious institutions and non-profits). That being said, there are some legitimate arguments against this proposal. Persuasive to me? Absolutely not. But legitimate nonetheless.

I think the best argument there was centered on the ordinance’s sheer unpopularity in the general public. In my opinion, this runs hand and hand with some major fumbles on the part of the Mayor. First and foremost, she made the ordinance nearly 100% about the LGBT community, when the ordinance was about everyone. Indubitably, rights for LGBT people are unbelievably important and even as a standalone issue should be fought for relentlessly, but so should Civil Rights for African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as protections by age, veterans status, disability and religion, to name a few. Perhaps the worst moment was when she addressed a commentator at public session by noting that the ordinance was “personal” for her. Simply put, it’s not about her. It’s about everyone. And by claiming it is about her and the LGBT community, she provides unneeded fodder for detractors to overturn the ordinance in a referendum.

Additionally, criticism was misplaced, and that is a huge understatement. The amount of nastiness directed toward Councilmember Brenda Stardig in particular was simply appalling. I will be the first to admit that I disagreed with Stardig’s vote, but that does not justify personal rhetorical attacks. Her office’s Facebook page was overrun with mean-spirited comments and she was singled out by a couple of commentators. Stardig never said she would support a non-discrimination ordinance and her constituency was overwhelmingly opposed. I fail to see the controversy here.

Like Stardig, all but two of the Councilmembers who voted no made no such earlier promise, and by-and-large came from constituencies opposing this ordinance. The two big exceptions were Dwight Boykins and Jack Christie.

With Christie, I can’t say I’m surprised. He had been utterly non-committal throughout last year’s campaign about supporting such an ordinance, even in response to incessant queries by his two opponents (Disclosure: one of them, James Horwitz, is my father), who were both big supporters of a non-discrimination ordinance and same-sex marriage. For some reason, last election cycle the GLBT Caucus was figuratively in love with Christie, not only endorsing him but campaigning for him vigorously against two liberal Democratic opponents. I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but…you know the rest. It’s definitely not Christie’s fault, though. He would only say that he supported a non-discrimination ordinance in very broad terms, and one could tell the bulk of his issues revolved around lowering the employee threshold to 15. It’s the fault of those who voted for him, expecting him to do something different. Don’t blame a politician for voting one’s district, but definitely don’t do so for voting one’s conscious–when the evidence previously pointed to the conclusion. It comes off as naive.

Now, Dwight Boykins is a whole other story. Throughout the campaign, he triumphantly touted his support for LGBT rights and has n0t at all been hesitant about any of it. Simply put, he lied. I understand that he thought his district was against it, but if you think like that, don’t talk to interest groups day in and day out about how you think LGBT rights should be a civil rights issue. Both are good enough selections, but you can only choose one. Boykins attempted to choose both, and as such, now appears for what he is: a giant hypocrite.

But perhaps one of the biggest disappointments in all this has been the Mayor. Simply put, she was a “sore-winner.” Instead of being gracious in victory and moving on to the referendum (which will be the real battle), she kept harping on bumping the margins up on the final vote. Even after the final vote, she showed favorites to the ordinances proponents and snubbed the opponents in discourteous and unprofessional ways.

In a City Council meeting in late June, Kubosh even made a comment at Council about how he should agree with the Mayor more often, so that “he too might get his bottle of wine.” At this point, coos and shrieks from council staff could be heard throughout the room. Obviously, I was curious as to what he was referencing, so I asked around. It turns out that the Mayor bought cheap bottles of red wine for all the Councilmembers who voted with her on the NDO, conspicuously snubbing those who did not. That type of antic –giving little treats in a very obvious fashion to your allies after they vote with you– is reminiscent of the petty, sophomoric tactics used by second-rate lobbyists, not the decorum expected of the Mayor.

But all this is just semantics, which in the grand scheme of things is rather unimportant. Probably the most egregious error in this whole process was the Mayor not focusing on the almost mandatory referendum. At the end of the day, the fact is that the City Secretary has noted that the number of valid signatures are above the minimum. Furthermore, when it comes to the jurisprudence of the matter, strict requirements for those circulating petitions to be registered voters are likely too onerous to stand up in court. A referendum is coming, and the best scenario is for it to be in November 2014. If it happens in May 2015, it will almost certainly fail. It is happens in November 2015, it will also likely fail, and could negatively affect City elections vis-a-vis progressive candidates.

But enough about just negative sentiment. At the end of the day, the courageous men and women at the GLBT Caucus and other interests did yeoman’s work in advancing this positive piece of legislation. I’m a bit of pessimist and a cynic, so I will also find things to gripe about, but that does not change the reality that a very good ordinance passed, an even stronger one than San Antonio’s! The process may have been muddied, and the long road is not even over yet, but if this holds up in a referendum, it will be Mayor Annise Parker’s lasting legacy as Mayor. It will be a darn good one.

As always, my fellow bloggers have provided awesome commentary on this issue. Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos, Off the Kuff and Texas Leftist all give great perspectives on the left, while Big Jolly Politics and Rhymes with Right do the same on the right.