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.