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.

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Texpatriate’s Questions for Mack McInnis

Editorial note: This is the fifteenth 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>.

Mack McInnis, Democratic candidate for the 185th (Criminal) District Court

Texpatriate: What is your name?
MM: Mack McInnis

T: What office are you seeking?
MM: Judge, 185th Criminal District Court

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for which years you held them.
MM: None

T: What is your political party?
MM: Democratic Party

T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
MM: My opponent’s Grand Jury selection method. My opponent uses an archaic and notorious method of selecting Grand Juries. She uses the “Key-man” a.k.a. Pick-a-Pal system which almost all Texas counties have abandoned. This old practice employs three to five Commissioners selected by the Judge. These Commissioners then select the Grand Jury.

In the case of Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos, a “Runaway” Grand Jury launched an investigation of the DA’s use of breath test results obtained using mobile Breath Alcohol Testing (BAT) vans. This protracted investigation revealed no wrong doing by Lykos, but it did serve to smear Lykos causing her to lose the Republican primary. My opponent acting both as a Judge of the 185th Criminal District Court and as presiding Administrative Judge over the Harris County Criminal District Courts ordered that the names of the July/August 2012 Commissioners and Grand Jurors be sealed until “further order of the Court.”

In recent months many articles in the Houston Chronicle and in the Washington Post have decried the use of the Pick-a-Pal selection process and the sealing of Grand Jury records.

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?
MM: Pretrial Release. In the past, Harris County had an active Pretrial Release program that used a risk scoring system to determine whether or not an arrestee was a safe risk for a low cost pretrial bond. Because of the strong law and order slant taken by the Harris County Criminal Courts in recent years, the practice declined and the Pretrial Release Agency made fewer and fewer bonds.

As a consequence, our jails are flooded with low risk offenders who could be paying a low cost bail fee to the County as was done in the past. I would solve the problem by urging my colleagues on the Criminal Judge’s Board to revitalize the Pre-trial Release program. In support of this approach, I will extend inexpensive Pretrial Release bonds to appropriate candidates based on the risk scoring system.

T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her job? If so, why?
MM: Yes, she has. As stated earlier, she has sealed the Grand Jury records in violation of the spirit and the letter of the Judicial Administrative rules. In 2010, she put an innocent woman in jail for three days for saying “Thank you, Jesus.” when her husband’s not guilty verdict was announced in court. Putting this innocent, religious woman in jail was an unnecessarily cruel over reaction demonstrating a lack of judicial temperament.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponent?
MM: I am more balanced in experience and temperament. I have served as a civil prosecutor for over eight years prosecuting termination cases in order to protect children from abusive parents. I also served as a criminal defense lawyer for 32 years. I have been the lead counsel in capital murder cases, multi-defendant federal cases, and I have around 300 jury trials under my belt. I also served as an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Trial Advocacy. I am Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. I will be decisive and fair.

T: What role do you think a Criminal District Judge should have individually?
MM: At the sake of sounding redundant, I believe that a balance of experience and personality makes for a good judge. A good judge cannot inaugurate sweeping changes. A good judge becomes an example by thoughtful rulings in individual cases.

T: What role do you think the Criminal District Courts should have as a whole?
MM: A judge should rule based on the law and the law should be tempered by reason and mercy in appropriate cases. A Criminal Judge’s influence is limited to his or her contribution to the policy decisions of the Criminal Judge’s Board and to his or her individual rulings.

T: What role do you believe a Judge should have in plea bargains?
MM: Very limited. I think that Judges sometimes refuse to allow plea agreements based on some iron clad or punitive policy mandate.

T: Do you think a Judge should ever veto an agreement between the District Attorney and Defense Attorneys?
MM: I can envision rare cases where a plea agreement should not be followed. For example, a burglar is offered a mild punishment and it is later discovered prior to the scheduled plea date that he/she is a serial killer and has committed multiple other crimes and perhaps should stay in jail to permit a more thorough investigation.

T: What role do you think that rehabilitation, rather than punishment, particularly for drug offenses, should have in the criminal justice process?
MM: I am a strong believer in rehabilitation. I have seen it work in multiple cases. One of my former clients was a repeat drug offender and he and his wife (also a former repeat drug offender) have operated very successfully for many years one of the best prison rehab ministries in Texas.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
MM: I think it is a mistake. Judges should be elected based on personal experience and qualifications and should serve for only two four-year terms. Unfortunately, we have to run in partisan elections. I do not believe that judges should be appointed by the Governor.

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?
MM: 1) The Pick-a-Pal Grand Jury System which I have advocated against it for years.

2) A bail-bond-company dominated bonding system which I have also advocated against for many years.

3) Wrongful convictions caused by a failed Crime Lab and evidence storage system which is illustrated by the deplorable history of the HPD Crime Lab. The new Michael Morton Law is a step in the right direction. I have advocated for an independent quality controlled Crime Lab and a reformed biological evidence storage system. Additionally, I believe that all expert witnesses and crime scene investigators should be trained under the NIJ Eyewitness Evidence Guide.