Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Nasty Battle for Court Eight

The vast majority of judicial races that I've observed during my time in Harris County are relatively dull events.  The candidates tersely refer to each other as "my opponent" and tout their dueling resumes, but that's the extent of the battling for the most part.  Things can be a little more heated during a contested primary, but those races rarely get as ugly as "Top of the Ballot" races like District Attorney or Sheriff, etc.

The lack of viciousness in the judicial races is probably due to the fact that there are so many races to run in at the judicial level.  In the 2018 election in Harris County, there are 15 criminal county court benches up for grabs and 13 criminal District Courts (plus 3 juvenile District Courts).  There are so many different races available to those who want to be judge, that most of them don't even have contested primaries.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes judicial races do get a bit nasty in the primaries.

Especially in the Republican primaries.

The reason that the Republican primaries are more susceptible to nastiness is directly attributable to what all aspiring candidates refer to as "The Slates."  When speaking of the Slates, one is typically addressing the "Big Three" of publications put out by self-anointed Republican moral spokespersons Stephen Hotze, Gary Polland, and my personal favorite, Terry Lowry -- the lizard who's assessment of how Godly a candidate is seems to directly correlate with how much money that candidate donates to Lowry's publication, The Link Letter.  Don't get me wrong, all three of them take pay-for-play money before making their endorsements.  Lowry's just appears to be the most-unapologetically mercenary and the hit pieces he writes on his non-endorsed candidates are far more below the belt than Polland and Hotze.  Usually.

For Republican candidates, to get the "endorsement" of all three of the Slates is an almost insurmountable advantage.  They use the money they collect from candidates to generate mailers that go out to voters who have a history of voting in Republican primaries.  The mailers have a check list telling the reader who to vote for.  Sadly, the Sheeple who read their garbage take those mailers to the polls and vote accordingly.  I've worked a couple of polls on election days over the years and the amount of voters who carry their mailers in to vote is truly distressing.

The climate that Lowry, Polland and Hotze have created within the Harris County Primary is that to win in the GOP primary, you simply have to be the candidate who is the furthest to the Right.  There is no room for moderation.

Which brings us to the Republican Race for Judge of Harris County Court at Law # 8, a bench that has been held by Judge Jay Karahan for the past 14 years.  Traditionally, an incumbent with so many years under his or her belt would never draw a primary opponent.

Unfortunately, Judge Karahan has run afoul of the Slates by <gasp> officiating over a same-sex marriage.  For some of us (who were raised in Republican families and have historically voted in every single Republican primary since 1992), Judge Karahan's decision to officiate over a same-sex wedding is a good thing.  Republican views on homosexuality are stupid, homophobic, and self-destructive.  NOTE:  I could write an entire post on the Republican platform on Gay Marriage, but suffice it to say that I know a large amount of gay men and women who are very dear to me and that is not a topic that is debatable here.  If you want to bash gay marriage, feel free to go over to Lowry's website.  He exists because you feel the way you do. On my website, judicial qualifications aren't based on who can be the most hateful.

But I digress.

Because Judge Karahan ran afoul of the Far Right within the Harris County Republican Party, the Slates summoned a pre-approved candidate to run against him.  That candidate is former-prosecutor and now a defense attorney, Dan Simons.

Now, before we go on, I want to be clear about something.  Dan is a controversial candidate to some, but he has never been anything but professional and nice to me.  I don't know him particularly well, but when I dealt with him as a prosecutor, he was reasonable, heard me out, and took the time to listen to my client's side of the story in a felony case.  I appreciate that.  But I want to acknowledge that there are others who know him far better than I do.

When I first heard that Dan had been recruited to run against Judge Karahan, my first thought was "that's a shame."  Not because I had anything against Dan.  I just felt that his recruitment was an utterly ridiculous thing to happen.  Judge Karahan is an excellent and very active judge.  He is well liked amongst the prosecutors and the defense attorneys who appear in front of him.  Regardless of how one feels about him performing a same-sex marriage, it is completely immaterial to the job he does as a criminal county court at law judge.  

The next thought I had about Dan running was "how many years has he been practicing?" If I recall correctly, Dan hadn't been at the office all that long before going to work for my friend, Mark Thiessen.  He served for over three years at the D.A.'s Office (which is the "gentleman's agreement" that incoming prosecutors sign up for) but Judge Karahan has been on the Bench since long before Dan even entered law school.

It didn't take long for things to get ugly.

Both Team Karahan and Team Simons came out swinging.  Much like in the Han Solo/Greedo debate over "who fired first," I'm not exactly sure who fired the first shot.  Dan gave a speech at a Republican function that blasted Karahan for the amount of weddings he performed, as well as the amount of money in Karahan's campaign war chest.  At some point along the line, Simons was arguing that he needed to be elected to "restore integrity" to Court Eight.  The obvious implication being that Court Eight was somehow lacking it.

Team Karahan responded with a website entitled "Never Dan Simons" and held nothing back.  A highlighted list of negative evaluations from Dan's time at the D.A.'s Office and some spotlighted cases that questioned his judgment as a prosecutor were the lead off.  It went deeper after that with some pretty personal mudslinging.

Judge Karahan posted on Facebook, encouraging his Democrat friends to cross party voting lines in the primary for him, and Simons blasted his disloyalty to the party.  The back and forth continues even as of this writing.

The situation dismayed me from a personal standpoint, and I made the comment on a friend's Facebook page that I was sorry to see it getting to that level.  That friend properly called me out for my own hypocrisy considering how many times I've gone negative here on the blog on people I considered to be unqualified candidates for benches.  It was a fair point.  Consider this paragraph my mea culpa on that.

In the final analysis, Judge Karahan deserves to be re-elected.  He has an amazing resume leading up to his time on the Bench, and he's been a damn good judge on the bench.  That's nothing against Dan.  It's just that I believe that good judges should keep on judging.  I wish this race hadn't gotten to the point that a Never Dan Simons website had popped up, but that's because I personally like Dan.  I don't think he has the resume and qualifications that Judge Karahan does, but I don't think that he's the demon portrayed on the campaign sites, either.

It will be interesting to see how powerful the Slates are in this particular battle.  Judge Karahan has some big name endorsements outside of the Slates, including but not limited to County Judge Ed Emmett.  The winner will face off against Democratic candidate (and my former roommate!) Franklin Bynum in November.

My write up on Franklin will probably be contingent upon how well we are getting along on the day I write it.  He's like the little brother I never had.  I love him to death, but we fight all the time.  I do need to point out that this picture makes him look like he should be showing kids how to do a science project on PBS.

Those are just my random and disjointed thoughts on the Race for Court Eight.  Whether you are Team Karahan, Team Simons or Team Mr. Wizard Bynum, please just remember to get out there and vote.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Blizzard of Confusion

Okay, maybe calling the small ice storm a "blizzard" is a mild exaggeration, but it works well for the title. 

In all honesty, it probably doesn't even qualify as a "storm," but it is cold outside with precipitation and we all know that tends to confuse Houstonians.  It's kind of like having a successful pro sports team.  We hear that those exist in other parts of the country, but it's been so long since it happened here that we don't know what to do with ourselves.

Most governmental agencies in Harris County tend to err on the side of caution and just shut everything down.   With the weather forecasters predicting a freeze coupled with precipitation, the Houston Independent School District had announced school closures by mid-afternoon yesterday.  With that announcement, those of us with kids (who were now slated to stay home from school) turned our attention to what was going on with the criminal courts.

County Judge Ed Emmett was the first to speak on the topic by indicating that Harris County buildings would remain open.  By doing this, he basically punted to the different elected officials who resided within those buildings to determine whether or not they would be open.  I can understand why Judge Emmett would punt.  He didn't want to be the guy who singlehandedly gave the entire county a paid day off.

But by punting, he caused all of us who work within the Harris County Criminal Justice System to require 38 different answers from 38 different elected judges.  Complicating matters was the fact that Monday was Martin Luther King. Jr. Day, so none of those elected judges were at work to give definitive answers.

Fortunately, through the District Courts' website and Facebook page, the answers became available quickly for some of the felony courts. 

Additionally, Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel was quick to announce that jury service for Tuesday was cancelled.

While this was certainly a substantial number of courts, it wasn't all of them.  There were several District Courts not on the list of closures, not to mention none of the sixteen County Courts had made a formal announcement.  Two of the County Court Judges (Judge Mike Fields and Judge Jay Karahan) took to their Facebook pages to announce that they would be closing their courts.  This morning, word was informally shared that ALL of the County Courts would be closed.

But there were still a couple of District Courts that had not spoken up yet, and there was total confusion as to whether or not the male and female Jail Dockets were being held.  One of the District Courts had a recorded voice message stating that the office was closed due to inclement weather, but the judge of that court had announced that he planned to have his afternoon docket as scheduled.  He ultimately relented and cancelled his 1 o'clock docket, but not until noon.

I'm sitting second chair on a case in that court with my good friend, Korey Huff, and the advice we gave to our client this morning went like this:

Call 1 -- "We haven't heard anything.  You probably need to come in."
Call 2 -- "The voicemail for the Court says they are closed, so you don't need to come in."
Call 3 -- "Nope.  Wait.  Sorry about that, they are now saying Court is open.  You need to come in."
Call 4 -- "Sorry again, now they are saying you don't need to come in."

It was embarrassing.  Nothing instills confidence in a client like decisiveness from his or her attorney.

Criminal Defense Attorneys on Facebook were blasting the lack of consistency and advance notice from the Judges.  That wasn't really fair to the judges who had made the effort to give quick notices of cancellations, but I understand the frustration. 

Believe me, I understand.  I was one of a handful of attorneys who drove in this morning for a jail docket, only to be told that they weren't able to bring over prisoners because the jailers were short-staffed.

It would seem to me that there should be a pretty simple solution to this confusion.  Both the District Court and County Court Judges have a presiding judge.  The individual judges should just vote to bestow power to those presiding judges to make the uniform decision of whether or not to shut down the courts.  They can make a decision the day before and they can publish that on a unified web page.

I get that the decision to shut down court is not one to be made lightly.  A missed day in court can lead to people being incarcerated longer than necessary.  But at the end of the day, sometimes public safety demands just that.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ryan Patrick Swearing In

Happy belated New Year, everyone.  I'm glad to be starting the New Year with some good news.

Former 177th District Court Judge Ryan Patrick is being sworn in tomorrow, Monday, January 8th as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas.  Although a ceremonial investiture will be taking place in February or March, he will formally begin his job by being sworn in tomorrow at 8:45 a.m.

He is being sworn in in the courtroom of Chief Judge Lee H. Rosenthal (in the Federal Courthouse at 515 Rusk, Courtroom 11B) and all are invited to attend.

Ryan was a great prosecutor during his time at Harris County and a great judge.  I know he'll do well in his new position, and I'm proud to call him my friend.