Tuesday, November 6, 2018

To the Candidates on Election Day

To all of my friends who are on the ballot today, I wanted to say thank you.

For the past two years, whether you were running to defend an Office you already held or whether you were running as a candidate for the first time, you have both my appreciation and my admiration.

For every dinner you missed at home because you had to attend an event.
For every weekend that you didn't get to relax because you had to block-walk.
For every fundraiser you had to attend or organize when you probably didn't really want to do either.
For every criticism that you receive from some jerk who doesn't even know you.
For every word of discouragement from somebody who told you that you couldn't get elected.
For every straight-ticket voting nimwit who never bothered to even consider you as a candidate.

I don't think that the average voter knows what candidates put themselves through just to face an uncertain outcome on Election Day.  I've had a front row seat to it before, and it solidified in my mind that I never want to do it myself.

Candidates put themselves through Hell just to put themselves in the running.

In doing so, they literally become the last line of defense for our government, regardless of whether they win or lose.  There would be no accountability from our government if there wasn't the competition of the election.

As an arm-chair quarterback who has thrown in his thoughts and criticisms far more than anyone really wanted to hear, I wanted to personally say thank you to everybody who had the guts to run for Office.  The race is almost over and whether you come in first place or second, you've done far more than any of us who just commentated.

To everyone who is reading this that isn't a candidate, it would seem to me that the least you could do is go out there and vote.

Good luck today.  Everyone.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Other Related Races on the 2018 Ballot

In addition to the District and County Court races in Harris County, there are some other races, both Countywide and Statewide, that have ties to Harris County.  I'm not going to spend as much time writing about these races, but I did want to bring them to your attention.

Harris County District Clerk -- Republican Chris Daniel (I) vs. Democrat Marilyn Burgess 
As readers of this blog know, I was a big fan of Chris Daniel's predecessor at District Clerk and I was slow to warm up to Daniel initially.  It didn't take long to figure out that Daniel was an enthusiastic and effective District Clerk.  Over his tenure, he has successfully switched Harris County to the eSubpoena and eFiling systems, which he has done with only relatively minor difficulty.  He's also kept things up and running through Hurricane Harvey and beyond.

His opponent, Marilyn Burgess is a CPA who isn't a lawyer or involved in the Harris County Criminal Justice World.  The Chronicle states she is qualified, and I don't doubt that.  However, Chris Daniel has been doing a good job day in and day out for some time now.  He makes himself available to take questions and/or complainants well outside of business hours.  He's a true public servant.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 4 -- Republican Marc Brown (I) vs. Democrat Charles Spain
Harris County D.A. Alum, former-180th District Court Judge, and Incumbent Judge Marc Brown is on this year's ballot for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 4.   His opponent is a Civil Attorney, so obviously I don't know much about him.

But I know Marc Brown.  Judge Brown was a highly respected senior prosecutor when he won election to the 180th District Court.  Upon taking the Bench in the 180th, he quickly became one of the most popular and respected judges in the CJC, and it was a job that he loved.  He was an absolute authority on the law and issues of search and seizure.  Once, I filed a Motion to Suppress in his court where he found that the issues I had cited weren't worthy of suppression, but some other issues that he had spotted and I had missed made the evidence suppressable.  He was committed to doing the right thing.

The crowd at the CJC wasn't surprised when he got appointed to the Court of Appeals.  He was a natural choice.  We were all sad to see him go, but glad that he comes back to visit during his vacation days.  He's done a great job at the Court of Appeals and the only reason he should ever leave there would be to head to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

Presiding Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals -- Republican Sharon Keller (I) vs. Democrat Maria T. Jackson
Although a statewide race, this is one that Harris County voters should pay attention to because 339th District Court Judge Maria T. Jackson is running to replace easily the most controversial sitting judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals.

For those of you who don't remember, Judge Sharon Keller drew national headlines in 2007 when she refused to accept a last-minute appeal from Death Row that was filed shortly after five.  Her refusal to accept it resulted in the inmate's execution without the merits of the appeal being reviewed.  When this, understandably, drew a huge wave of criticism, Keller responded with "we close at five."  Per the Chronicle's editorial, Keller also has paid $25,000 to settle multiple judicial complaints against her.  I get that in pro-Death Penalty Texas, some voters might not have a problem with Keller's actions, but they should.  Proceeding with an execution without fully vetting the appeals makes our system no better than a lynch mob.

Since taking the Bench on January 1, 2009, Judge Jackson has rapidly risen in popularity and respect amongst those of us who have practiced before her.  To begin with, she's just a very nice person.  She treats all of those who appear before her with courtesy and respect.  That includes both the lawyers and the people who stand accused of crimes.  She operates from a place of seeking out what is the right thing to do.  I can assure you that Judge Jackson would have never closed the doors on an appeal of any kind (much less one involving the Death Penalty) because it was outside of business hours.

In addition to receiving the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle, Judge Jackson has received the endorsement of the Dallas Morning News and other major newspapers in Texas.  I voted for her this morning.  I'd recommend that you do too.

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 7 . -- Republican Barbara Parker Hervey (I) vs. Democrat Ramona Franklin
Like Judge Maria T. Jackson, 338th Distric Court Judge Ramona Franklin is also seeking higher office with her run for the Court of Criminal Appeals.  Unlike the race for Presiding Judge, however, Judge Franklin's opponent is not so controversial.  She received a 4 star rating from the Houston Chronicle while Judge Franklin did not meet with the Editorial Board and received a 2.5 star rating.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 5 -- Republican Martha Hill Jamison (I) vs. Democrat Frances Bourliot
As with most of the Appellate Benches, I don't know much about Incumbent Justice Martha Hill Jamison, but I did want to note that former-Public Defender and current defense attorney Frances Bourliot is running as the Democratic candidate.  Without speaking ill of Justice Jamison, I did want to point out that I've known Bourliot for almost ten years and she is a strong advocate for her clients and someone who is extremely knowledgeable in the law.  She would make a great Justice.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

1st Court of Appeals, Place 6 -- Republican Harvey Brown (I) vs. Democrat Sarah Beth Landau
I don't personally know either of the candidates for the 1st Court of Appeals, but I did want to point out that Democratic challenger Sarah "Sorcha" Landau is running for the 1st Court of Appeals, Place 6 against Justice Harvey Brown.  Landau is an Assistant Public Defender.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

1st Court of Appeals, Place 7 -- Republican Terry Yates vs. Democrat Julie Countiss
The 1st Court of Appeals, Place 7 is an open race with Justice Terry Jennings not seeking re-election.  I've known Republican challenger Terry Yates for over 20 years and he's a friend of mine.  I'm very good friends with his brother, Denny, and I'm a big fan of his wife, Judge Leslie Brock Yates.  I like Terry a lot, but I have to admit I'm not a big fan of his association with Steven Hotze or the anti-same-sex marriage platform.  I only know Democrat Julie Countiss in passing, but I agree with her assessment that politics should be left out of the judicial system.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

234th District Court (Civil) -- Republican Wesley Ward (I) vs. Democrat Lauren Reeder
Assistant District Attorney Lauren Reeder is running against incumbent Judge Wesley Ward for the 234th District Court Bench.  I don't do Civil Law and I'm not saying anything negative about Judge Ward.  I will say that I know Reeder and have worked on several cases with her.  I think very highly of her ability and integrity.  She would make a great judge.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

269th District Court (Civil) -- Republican Dan Hinde (I) vs. Democrat Cory Sepolio
And, last but not least, my friend and former-Harris County Assistant District Attorney Cory Sepolio is challenging Dan Hinde for the 269th District Court Bench.  As in the race for the 234th, I'd like to reiterate that I don't do Civil Law.  I read the Chronicle's write up on the race and think that Judge Hinde's decision to stop performing weddings was a little weak-kneed.  According to the Chronicle, Judge Hinde acknowledged that he feared drawing a primary opponent if he had performed a same-sex marriage (also known as being Karahan-ed).  I do know Sepolio and I also think very highly of his ability and integrity.  He's a good man and would make a good judge.  Even though he doesn't return my calls about going to Texans games.

Here's what the Chronicle had to say about the race.

So, that's a wrap on my 2018 Election thoughts.  I hope they helped somebody out there somewhere in making a decision, because they sure took a long time to write!

Whether you folow my recommendations or ignore them completely, please please please just get out there and vote!

Monday, October 22, 2018

The 2018 County Court at Law Races

For those unfamiliar with the Criminal Justice System, the County Courts handle Misdemeanor cases such as Driving While Intoxicated, smaller thefts, Assaults that don't involve weapons or serious bodily injuries, and Possession of Marijuana (if the D.A. filed those kinds of cases).  As most of you already know, there are sixteen Criminal County Courts at Law in Harris County and fifteen of those are on the ballot in November.  The one exception is County Court at Law # 16, which is a relatively new Court, which comes up for election during the Presidential election cycle.  County Court at Law # 16 also has the distinction of being the only one of the County Courts currently held by a Democrat (Judge Darrell Jordan).  All fifteen of the Courts on the ballot in November are held by Republicans.

Most of the judges who sit on County Court benches have been there for many years -- several of them since before I came to Harris County.  Almost all of the judges are former prosecutors from the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

Many of the current sitting judges have decided to retire rather than run again.  Personally, I think that there are three main factors that are influencing the Judicial Exodus:  1) terrible conditions after Hurricane Harvey, 2) an uncertain outlook for Republicans in November, and 3) a controversial Federal lawsuit regarding bail bonds.

As an amusing sidenote, apparently, the Houston Chronicle decided not to endorse any of the judges involved in the bond lawsuit.  I guess that's fine, but with the paper's fancy new rating system, that led to them giving higher ratings to some candidates and then endorsing that same candidate's opponent.  That's kind of like saying "sure, four is a higher number than three, but for the purposes of this article, we are just going to pretend that it isn't."  It's Chronicle Math.


With that for a backdrop, here are your candidates for the County Court Benches.

County Court at Law # 1 -- Republican Judge Paula Goodhart (I) vs. Democrat Alex Salgado
The first victim of Chronicle Math is Incumbent Republican Judge Paula Goodhart, who despite getting a 3.5 star rating as compared to challenger Alex Salgado's 3 stars, did not get the mildly coveted Chronicle endorsement.

I've known Judge Goodhart since she was at the Harris County District Attorney's Office, where she was a highly respected Chief and trial lawyer.  She later translated that into becoming a highly respected County Court Judge, where she has served for multiple terms now.  I haven't had too many cases in her court, but when I have, she has been polite, efficient, and fair.  She's a really good judge that is liked by both the prosecution and the defense.  As noted in the Chronicle non-endorsement, Judge Goodhart is also a leading force in SOBER Court, as well leading the effort to get things back to semi-normal after Hurricane Harvey.

I don't personally know Democrat Alex Salgado, but I've heard very nice things about him.  People that I know who practice more frequently in Fort Bend County know him from the Ft. Bend District Attorney's Office, where he is also well-liked and respected.  I'm sure that he would make a fine judge, as well.  As noted by the non-endorsement, he just doesn't have the amount of experience that Judge Goodhart does.

County Court at Law # 2 -- Republican Judge Bill Harmon (I) vs. Democrat Ronnisha Bowman
The second victim of Chronicle Math is Incumbent Republican Judge Bill Harmon, who received a 2.5-star rating, as opposed to his opponent, Democratic challenger Ronnisha Bowman's 2 stars.  In this case, however, the mathmagicians at the Chronicle called a surprising "No Endorsement" between the two candidates.  So, under this math equation, I guess 2 = 2.5 = 0?  I have to admit, I'm really kind of starting to enjoy Chronicle Math.  There are just no wrong answers.

But, I digress.  So, apparently, the fact that candidate Bowman has only tried six cases (which the Chronicle bizarrely refers to as "presiding over") in her short career.  Therefore, they cannot, in good conscience, endorse her.  So, I guess that means that they've got to go with the only other person in the race, right?  Nope.  That would make them go back on their word of not endorsing judges involved in the lawsuit.

I've known Judge Harmon since I was a baby prosecutor and I like him a lot.  However, he is pretty stubborn when it comes to how he handles cases, especially DWI cases.  He is known for being harsher on punishment and driver's license suspensions.  However, as noted by the Chronicle, he does absolutely know what he's doing.  They are also correct that having tried (not presided over) six trials does not give an attorney enough experience to be a judge.

County Court at Law # 3 -- Republican Judge Natalie Fleming (I) vs. Democrat Erica Hughes
Incumbent Judge Natalie Fleming is seeking re-election to the Bench that she has held since 2010.  I've had the opportunity to appear in front of Judge Fleming on several cases and she is an outstanding judge.  She is knowledgeable in the law and runs a friendly and efficient courtroom.  I would gladly appear in front of her any day.

Although I don't believe that I know Democratic challenger Erica Hughes, personally, she does have a very impressive resume in the Chronicle.  Unlike some other challengers, she does have experience in criminal law, as well as military experience in the National Guard with the JAG Corps.  The Chronicle points out that she would have a learning curve since JAG doesn't follow the Texas Penal Code.  I find this ironic since the Chronicle apparently does not follow Math.  If Hughes is doing criminal law in Texas and she has JAG trial experience, I'm sure she would do just fine.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Hughes with 3 stars, although it gave Judge Fleming 4 stars.  It seems to me that both candidates are both well-qualified to serve.

County Court at Law # 4 -- Republican Judge John Clinton (I) vs. Democrat Shannon Baldwin
Incumbent Judge and former-Houston Police Officer John Clinton is running for re-election against longtime defense attorney Shannon Baldwin.  I did not know Judge Clinton before he took the Bench in Court Four in 2010, but I've had the opportunity to appear before him several times over the past eight years and found it to be a very good experience.  He is very solution oriented and works with all of the parties in resolving the cases in a fair and equitable solution.  I agree with the Chronicle's assessment that he is a very caring judge.

Democratic candidate Shannon Baldwin is a friend of mine who devotes her practice to Criminal Law.  She's been doing it for quite some time now (20 years!) and would make a fantastic judge.  That, coupled with her military experience as an officer in the National Guard, make her candidacy the Real Deal.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Baldwin with 3.5 stars, compared to Judge Clinton's 4 stars.  I would have given Baldwin 4 stars, as well.

County Court at Law # 5 --  Republican Xavier Alfaro vs. Democrat David Fleischer
With longtime Incumbent Republican Judge Margaret Harris not seeking re-election, this race is the first of several wide-open contests in the Misdemeanor Courts.  Republican challenger Xavier Alfaro is a former prosecutor and current defense attorney who previously ran for the 178th District Court in 2016.  His Democratic opponent is longtime defense attorney David Fleischer.

Both Alfaro and Fleischer are friends of mine and both would make great judges.  While it is true that Alfaro has had the benefit of previously serving as a prosecutor (while Fleischer has not), I don't think that should be counted as a mark against Fleischer.  There are plenty of judges on the Bench in Harris County who only served as prosecutors.

Both Alfaro and Fleischer are dedicated lawyers who practice on a daily basis in defense of their clients.  Alfaro is a bit more laid-back while Fleischer is a bit more intense, with an overarching concern about the bigger issues facing the Criminal Justice System.

The Houston Chronicle gave the endorsement to Alfaro, with a 3.5-star rating, as compared to Fleischer's 3 stars.  I found the paper's write-up on the race to be a little confusing.  Personally, I would have graded them both as equals.

County Court at Law # 6 -- Republican Linda Garcia vs. Democrat Kelley Andrews
With longtime Incumbent Judge Larry Standley not seeking re-election, the race for County Court at Law # 6 is also an open race.  The Republican Candidate is Linda Garcia, who was previously appointed to County Court at Law #16 when the Court was first created.  She lost her bench in the Democratic Sweep of 2016 to Judge Darrell Jordan.  Andrews is a longtime defense attorney.  Both are friends of mine.

Garcia has a very impressive resume.  She is a former judge and prosecutor.  She also served on the Board of Pardons and Parole.  She's an extremely nice lady who was well-liked during her brief tenure on the Bench.  She also has a strong background in Appellate Law, which is a plus.

Kelley Andrews is a highly respected and well-liked defense attorney who has been zealously representing her clients for some time now.  She is a good attorney who works hard on her clients' behalf.  She is funny, diplomatic and talented.  The fact that the Chronicle gave her the same grade as a candidate with Garcia's resume is a testament to what a fantastic candidate she would be.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Garcia with a 3.5-star rating, although it gave Andrews the exact same rating.  I did laugh at the Chronicle's self-important declaration at the end of their endorsement:
We're giving the nod to Garcia on the express condition that she refuses to accept the status quo at the courthouse and becomes an agent for change.
What does that even mean?  In the event that Garcia wins the election and is not, in fact, "agent for change," the Chronicle will retract the endorsement?  Wouldn't that be a little late?  Who is writing this stuff for them?  They weren't like this in the District Court endorsements.  They seriously need to get over themselves.

County Court at Law # 7 -- Republican Judge Pam Derbyshire (I) vs. Democrat Andrew Wright
When I was a baby prosecutor back in 1999, the first court that I was ever assigned to was County Court at Law #7 with Judge Pam Derbyshire.  I tried my first cases in front of her and it was great.  She was great.  The staff was great.  Some of my favorite memories of my time as a prosecutor go back to those days when I didn't have a clue about what I was doing and I was trying cases in front of a very kind and very patient Judge Derbyshire. She is one of my very favorite people in the courthouse and I always love catching up with her every time I'm in the neighborhood of her court.

Her Democratic opponent, Andrew Wright, is a friend of mine, though, and (despite the fact that he routinely mocks me on Facebook every chance he gets) I think he'd make a pretty good judge, himself.   He is a hard-working attorney who is well-versed in the law and very dedicated to the job he does.  The majority of his practice is in the Misdemeanor Courts, where he is very much at home.  He strives to do a good job for his clients, even though he looks more like a member of an Allman Brothers Tribute Band than an attorney.  Wright is a good person who wants to help and wants to make things better in the Misdemeanor courts.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Wright with a 3-star rating despite the fact that they gave Judge Derbyshire a 4.5-star rating and praised her compassion and innovation from the Bench.  I wonder if, at any point, the Editorial Board started to realize that their steadfast refusal to endorse any of the incumbent judges was kind of making their recommendations look a little silly.

County Court at Law # 8 -- Republican Dan Simons vs. Democratic Socialist Franklin Bynum 
This is probably the most interesting race on the ballot this November because of the personalities involved.  As most courthouse regulars know, Republican challenger (former prosecutor and current defense attorney) Dan Simons defeated longtime incumbent Judge Jay Karahan in the primary after a very nasty battle.  His opponent is a longtime defense attorney, Franklin Bynum, who is running as a Democratic Socialist.  Simon's politics are extremely conservative.  Bynum couldn't be further to the Left.  They could not be more polarly opposite.

I've known Bynum since he was a (relatively) young defense attorney.  He's a friend that I bicker with quite a bit and, in fact, he was even my roommate for a brief amount of time.  I don't know Simons nearly as well as I know Bynum, but as I've previously written, he's always been nice to me.

As noted above, the philosophies of the two could not be more different.  Although I like Simons, I wasn't a big fan of the attack on Judge Karahan because Karahan performed a same-sex wedding.  I've got a big problem with the politics of exclusion.  That being said, it wouldn't surprise me if Bernie Sanders was considering giving Bynum a phone call and asking him to tone down the Liberalism just a smidge.  The Chronicle is very correct in describing Bynum as a "brilliant attorney who cares deeply for his clients."  The Chronicle is also correct in comparing his candidacy to that of former-Judge Kevin Fine.  If elected, Bynum would unabashedly start handling things quite differently than any other court in Harris County.  That's not a criticism.  That's just a prediction, and I would imagine he would wholeheartedly agree with it.

Unsurprisingly, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Bynum with a 3.5-star rating to Simons' 1.5 rating.

County Court at Law # 9 -- Republican John Wakefield vs. Democrat Toria Finch
With the retirement of Judge Analia Wilkerson, political newcomers John Wakefield and Toria Finch are seeking to replace her.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don't now Finch very well although we are always friendly when we see each other.  Wakefield and I, on the other hand, are good friends who go back to when he first started at the Office.  Not that I have anything negative to say about Finch.  I just know Wakefield far better.  I can speak to his qualifications based on personal experience, but I've got to rely on the Chronicle write-up for what I know about Finch.

Wakefield is a senior felony District Court Chief with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, where he has worked for the past 12 years.  He's a smart guy with a great sense of humor.  He's reasonable to deal with and he knows his cases.  He knows the law and he follows it.  He is compassionate on his cases and by no means a hard-core prosecutor.  He isn't afraid to do the right thing no matter what the circumstances.  In addition, Wakefield is a strong family man and a great friend.  He would make a great friend.  As noted in the Chronicle's selection, he is Board Certified in Criminal Law.

Finch has also been practicing criminal law for 12 years and worked in both the Misdemeanor and Felony Divisions of the Harris County District Attorney's Office.  I learned from the Chronicle editorial that she was Board Certified in Juvenile Law.

Both have impressive resumes, which led to the Chronicle endorsing both candidates with mutual 4 star ratings.

County Court at Law # 10 --Republican Judge Dan Spjut (I) vs. Democrat Lee Harper Wilson
In contrast to the other County Court at Law races on the ballot, I don't really know either of the candidates running for County Court at Law #10.  I've appeared once before Judge Spjut since he took the Bench and he was very nice.  That being said, I've heard nothing but positive reviews from prosecutors and defense attorneys who have appeared in front of him.   Per the Chronicle editorial, Judge Spjut is a retired Houston Police Officer who served for 27 years and practiced civil law for 14 years.  He has been on the Bench since 2014.

I don't believe that I have ever met Lee Harper Wilson and I didn't recognize him from the picture.  He does have an impressive resume, especially considering the fact that he is Board Certified in Criminal Law.  Even Judge Spjut noted that Wilson was a qualified opponent.

The Chronicle again applied their special brand of math by giving the endorsement to Wilson with a 3.5-star rating while giving a 4-star rating to Judge Spjut.

County Court at Law # 11 -- Republican Aaron Burdette vs. Democrat Sedrick T. Walker, II
With the departure of longtime Judge Diane Bull, the race for County Court at Law # 11 is also a wide-open race with Republican Aaron "The Institution" Burdette running against Democrat Sedrick Walker.  In the interest of full disclosure, I know Burdette far better than I know Walker.  Although I worked with Walker on a couple cases during his tenure as a prosecutor, Burdette is a good friend, and also my neighbor.

Having read the Chronicle's write up on the race, I did want to note how much I agreed with Walker's assessment of the overarching problem of the Misdemeanor courts:
 He told us that too many defendants are being punished "on the front end of the system" before they are found guilty and "not at the back end," after it's determined that their actions merit consequences. 
His explanation sheds light on the core inequity of these courts. Too often bail is unaffordable, or it's saddled with punitive and costly conditions, and too many defendants end up being treated like they're on probation even though they've merely been charged and not convicted of a crime.
He's absolutely right about that.  I wish I had thought of it the way he said it.

As I noted above, I worked with Walker on a couple of cases during his time as a prosecutor.  He was always cordial and on-the-level with how he handled cases.  He was very straightforward and easy to work with.  I didn't feel like I ever got to know him very well, because he was really quiet.  He does have experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, which is a positive attribute.

I've known Burdette since he was a young prosecutor and I've always enjoyed working with him.  I've handled cases against him, where he was upfront with the strengths and weaknesses of his case.  I've also dealt with him when he was supervising the Misdemeanor Division as Deputy Chief.  He did a good job with that and I'm glad that the Chronicle recognized the importance that experience had.  That position gave him an overview of the Misdemeanor system as a whole.  He had the opportunity to see all sixteen of the County Courts.  He was able to see what things worked and what things didn't.  If elected, he will be able to put that knowledge into practice.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Burdette with a 4-star rating, although they also gave Walker 4 stars.

County Court at Law # 12 -- Republican John Spjut vs. Democrat Cassandra Y. Holleman
With the retirement of longtime Judge Robin Brown, this race is also up for grabs.  The Republican candidate is John Spjut, brother of Court #10's Judge Dan Spjut, and the husband of retiring Judge Diane Bull.  I don't know him personally.  Per the Chronicle endorsement, he spent 30 years with HPD and then 20 years doing juvenile law.  He doesn't look old enough to already have 50 years of career behind him,

Also per the Chronicle, he wants to create a Narcotics Court if elected.  That's not really a practical idea since Misdemeanor courts don't handle cases involving truly serious drugs and the Ogg Administration already has some pretty good programs for people caught with marijuana.  He also stated that he could look at a police report and decide if it has any holes in it, which is all well and good, except that's not really what a judge does.

That being said, at least Spjut showed up to meet with the Chronicle.  Apparently, Holleman literally phoned it in when it came to her interview -- something that didn't sit well with the Editorial Board.  The Board subsequently called out Holleman for not having a good website for her candidacy and disputed her claim that she practiced criminal law.  I don't know if she practices criminal law or not.  I'm not familiar with her name and I didn't recognize her when I looked her up on Facebook.

The Chronicle ultimately endorsed Spjut with 2.5 stars over Holleman's 2 stars.  Based on this ranking, I think I'm finally understanding the Chronicle's "star rating" system.  Apparently, you get 1 star just for having a pulse.  You get another star if you communicate with the Board at all.  You get a half star credit for saying the word "treatment."  You get another star (perhaps two) if you are really good at your job.  And you get all the stars completely disregarded if you are an incumbent seeking re-election.

County Court at Law # 13  -- Republican Jessica Padilla vs. Democrat Raul Rodriguez
With the retirement of Judge Don Smyth, political newcomer Jessica (Needham) Padilla is running as the Republican candidate against Democrat Raul Rodriguez, who has previously run for office.  Both candidates are great candidates and both are friends of mine.

I've known Padilla since she was a baby prosecutor almost 18 years ago.  She has always been a diligent and hardworking attorney -- both during her tenure as a prosecutor and subsequently, as a defense attorney.  She is smart and works hard for her clients.  She has the right demeanor to have a great judicial temperament.  In her Chronicle interview, she emphasized the work she does in Harris County's Reintegration Court.

Rodriguez has been practicing criminal law longer than I have.  Although he practices in both Felony and Misdemeanor courts, his primary focus seems to have been in the County Courts.  He is a very nice guy who is highly respected in the Criminal Justice world.  He also serves as a municipal court judge, per the Chronicle article.

The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Rodriguez with a 3-star rating, although it gave the same rating to Needham.

County Court at Law # 14 -- Republican Judge Mike Fields (I) vs. Democrat David Singer
Incumbent Republican Judge Mike Fields is the only incumbent on the County Courts Ballot to receive the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle during this election cycle.  The reason being that Judge Fields is one of two judges who has elected not to fight against the bail bond lawsuit that is so near and dear to the Chronicle's heart.

The race for Court 14 is an interesting one because it is an exact replay of the race in 2014.  Democrat David Singer challenged Judge Fields then and now.  The Chronicle notes that they endorsed Singer in 2014 but that they have subsequently changed their mind since Judge Fields left the lawsuit.

I've known Judge Fields since I was a baby prosecutor.  I was assigned to his court as a Misdemeanor Three.  Quite frankly, I love the guy.  We've always gotten along and we seem to get each other's sense of humor.  Don't get me wrong.  There have been times that some of his policies have left me scratching my head, but I think his heart has always been in the right place when trying to deal with cases -- particularly DWI cases.  Over the past 19 years, I've seen him make courtroom policies that he subsequently was willing to change if they weren't working.  I've also seen him delve into almost every case before him, devoting as much time as necessary to give it his full attention.  As noted in the Chronicle's editorial, he's willing to change his mind if that's what he thinks is the right thing to do.  That's a good quality for a judge.

I've also known David Singer for quite some time.  I like him too, but I think he gets mad at me for what I write about him on the blog from time to time.  I think Singer is a good lawyer -- a really good lawyer, in fact.  However, he seems to get angry over some small things.  I can recall him getting really aggravated over me referring to him as a "perennial candidate" one time.  He also took to the comments section here to blast me for referring to him as "equally qualified" to another candidate he was running against.   That seemed like a disproportionate response for something written on a blog that isn't really read by too many people.

As noted above, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Judge Fields with 3.5 stars.  They gave the same rating to Singer.  As a side note, if I mysteriously disappear in the next few days, blame Singer.   Just kidding.  Kind of.

County Court at Law # 15 -- Republican Roger Bridgwater vs. Democrat Tonya Jones
With the retirement of longtime Judge Jean Spradling, Republican Roger Bridgwater brought forth his inevitable, never-ending quest to get elected back out on the road.  Bridgwater was appointed to the 178th District Court bench in 2007, only to lose it in the 2008 election.  He's never actually won an election.

As I've mentioned time and time again, I'm not a fan of Bridgwater.  I used to be. Unfortunately, his actions as a Bureau Chief in the Lykos Administration destroyed the respect I once had for the man.  I've written about it before a time or two.

Bridgwater knows I'm not a fan of his.  He's not a fan of mine either, and I get that.  So, I was rather stunned a few months ago when I learned that he was using something that I over a decade ago to create the absolutely FALSE impression that I supported his current campaign.  That's just dishonest, not to mention stupid.

I don't know Tonya Jones other than a few e-mail exchanges that we've had this season, but she's got my vote.  It is true that she has less years of legal experience than Bridgwater, but I'd rather vote for a young candidate who is honest than an old one who isn't.  The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Bridgwater with 4 stars, citing his years of experience and leadership potential.  The Board clearly doesn't know that much about Bridgwater.  The Board gave Jones 3.5 stars and stated it was only her lack of experience that got her the lower grade.

I have previously stated that I wasn't going to make endorsements this year, but I will make an exception in this race. I wholeheartedly endorse Tonya Jones for County Court at Law # 15.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The 2018 Criminal District Court Races

Of the 22 Criminal District Courts in Harris County, approximately half of them are on the ballot during the Gubernatorial Election cycle.  The other half runs with the Presidential cycle which has been anything but certain since the Democratic near-sweep in 2008.  As most of you know, all but one incumbent Republican judge lost the Bench in 2008.  However, in 2012, many Republicans won back benches.

In 2016, Harris County had a massive Democratic sweep, and Dem straight ticket voting outpaced Republican voters by 71,000 votes (8 percentage points).  All of the Republican judges lost their benches by margins ranging from roughly 24,000 votes to 100,000.

Gubernatorial years have usually favored the Republicans in Harris County, Texas.  In 2014, all of the Republican candidates for Judge won their benches.  The straight-ticket voting difference favored the Republicans by 44,000 votes.  In 2010, the Republicans won straight-ticket by 50,000.  In recent history, a Republican holding a bench, running on the Gubernatorial cycle, seemingly had fantastic job security.  Whether or not that continues to hold true is up for debate.  Beto O'Rourke's campaign against Ted Cruz is far more mobilizing for Dems than Wendy Davis's campaign against Greg Abbott in 2014.  President Trump is also keeping Dems angry and motivated on a daily basis.

I'm genuinely curious to see what happens in November.   This will be the last statewide election that voters have the ability to straight-ticket vote.  I'm REALLY curious to see what happens in 2020.  I'm hopeful (although not entirely optimistic) that after this election, the straight-ticket voting phenomenon won't be as destructive on our Criminal Justice elections.

As I've previously written, there are great candidates on both sides in this election -- many of whom are personal friends of mine (and in some cases, friends of each other.)  So, I'm considering this write up more of a voter guide than an endorsement list.

Here's the rundown.

180th District Court -- Republican Judge Catherine Evans (I) vs. Democrat Desean Jones
I've known Judge Evans since she was a Baby Prosecutor and I knew that she would do a great job as judge when she was first appointed to the Bench in 2013.  She hasn't disappointed.  I've handled quite a few cases in her court and many of those have been complicated and serious.  In each of those cases, I've seen Judge Evans strive to make sure that Defendant's in her court are treated fairly and equally.  In trial, she follows the law and calls "balls and strikes" without preference toward either side.  In those instances where she's called upon to pass sentence on a Defendant, she carefully considers all of the evidence before making a ruling.  Just this week, I wrapped up an exceedingly difficult trial with Judge Evans and she was fantastic to try it in front of.  I would gladly try a case in front of her in the future.

I've also known Desean Jones for years, although I don't know him nearly as well as I know Judge Evans.  I had the opportunity to get to know him and talk to him when he first started practicing criminal law.  He is an Army veteran and reservist, a class act, and someone that I'm proud to call my friend.  When I first met Desean, several years ago, he was relatively new to his practice and wanted to learn about Criminal Law.  He's a good man, and as noted in the Houston Chronicle's write up on the race, he wants to make changes to injustices in the System itself.

NOTE:  The Chronicle, in its rating system, gave Evans four stars and gave Jones three.  I think the bottom line in this race is that Jones would make a good judge, but Evans already is a good judge.

182nd District Court -- Republican Jesse McClure vs. Democrat Danny Lacayo
With longtime Judge Jeanine Barr retiring from the bench, the 182nd is up for grabs.  Republican McClure is a prosecutor from the Texas Department of Insurance who is currently assigned to the Harris County District Attorney's Office.  I've handled a case or two with him over the past couple of years and I truly enjoy working with him.  He's fair, reasonable and honest.  He's a good guy and he would make a good judge.

Democrat Lacayo is a former prosecutor and longtime attorney for the Harris County Public Defender's Office.  I've known Danny forever, and I consider him to be a dear friend.  He's a good man and he is very well-liked and respected by his colleagues at the CJC.  Some of you may recall that earlier this year, Lacayo was sucker punched by one of his clients in the jail holdover.  To his credit, it didn't slow him down at all.  He was back, zealously defending indigent clients with the same level of dedication that he has always exhibited.

NOTE:  The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Lacayo but labeled this race as a "dead heat," and gave both candidates a 3.5 star rating.  Quite frankly, I think they were both deserving of 4 stars, but I do agree with the assessment that voters can't go wrong in this race.

183rd District Court -- Republican Judge Vanessa Velasquez (I) vs. Democrat Chuck Silverman
As most readers of this blog know, few things tick me off as much as candidates running for criminal benches that have no experience in criminal law.  Sadly, there is nothing that prohibits a completely unqualified candidate from seeking an office regardless of whether or not they have the slightest clue about what he or she is doing.  Unfortunately, that is what we have in Democratic candidate Chuck Silverman, a civil attorney who is, yet again, running for a criminal bench.

In 2014, Silverman ran against 208th District Judge Denise Collins and was soundly defeated.  As I said back then, "The audacity of a non-criminal attorney even seeking a bench where he has no experience is offensive."  I still find the idea offensive that a lawyer, practicing in a civil arena but unable get elected to a civil bench, would bring his show to the criminal justice world and attempt to set up shop.  While civil cases deal with money, criminal cases deal with human lives.  It is no place for amateurs and it is no place for Silverman.  

By stark contrast, Judge Velasquez is an enormously well-respected judge who has spent her entire career in the Criminal Justice arena.  She was a longtime prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney's Office before being appointed to the 183rd District Court.   I have an enormous amount of respect for Judge Velasquez as someone who has worked hard to get where she is today.  She is one of the toughest, yet most compassionate judges on the bench.  She is not afraid to dress down the toughest hard case defendants who appear before her (I've seen her make hard-core gang members cry).  But she also has the courage to work with some of those hard-core defendants if they are sincere about making changes in their lives.  She's a phenomenal judge and she makes a positive difference in a lot of lives.  

NOTE:  The Chronicle endorsed Judge Velasquez with a 3.5 star rating, knocking her slightly for her strict tardiness policies.  I feel that knock was misplaced -- Judge Velasquez expects people charged in her court to treat those charges as the most serious thing going on their lives.  Although some judges revoke bonds on late defendants just for the sake of getting them back in custody, Judge Velasquez has always done it to make sure that Defendants realize how serious she is.   Defendants that don't take charges seriously won't fare well in any felony court.  

The Chronicle bizarrely gave Silverman a 2 star rating, which was about 2 more stars than he should have had.  He doesn't have any criminal experience.  Under this theory, the Chronicle should give me a 2 star rating as a brain surgeon.  In 2014, Judge Velasquez did not draw an opponent.  That was because no one from either Party wanted to challenge a judge who does so much for the System.  

If Chuck Silverman knew anything about criminal law, he wouldn't have run against her, either.

184th District Court -- Republican Renee Magee vs. Democrat Abigail Anastasio
With the retirement of incumbent Republican Judge Jan Krocker, the race for the 184th District Court is also wide open.  Former-337th District Court Judge Renee Magee is the Republican candidate and political newcomer, defense attorney Abigail Anastasio is running as the Democrat.

In the 2016 election, I upset some people when I endorsed Judge Herb Ritchie over then-Judge Magee for the 337th.  My concerns then were that Judge Magee had not quite gotten past her role as prosecutor after four years on the Bench.  Although my intent was not to hurt anyone's feelings, I felt that I needed to share my experience trying cases in front of her.  I'm not sure what Renee has been doing since leaving the Bench.  I don't believe that she has been doing defense work and I know she hasn't gone back to prosecuting.  So, basically, I don't know what to add to what I last wrote.

I've known Abigail Anastasio since she was a young prosecutor and I even tried a case against her back in the day.  As noted by the write up in the Chronicle, she has less experience than Magee, but she's got a great heart.  Since leaving the District Attorney's Office, she has become a very active member of the Defense Bar who defends her clients wholeheartedly.

NOTE:  The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Magee with a 3.5 star rating, with Anastasio a close second with 3 stars.  The Chronicle noted that they based the decision on Magee's years of experience compared to those of Anastasio's.

185th District Court -- Republican Stacey Bond vs. Democrat Jason Luong
With longtime 185th District Court Judge Susan Brown retiring from the Bench and taking over as the Presiding Judge of the 11th Administrative Judicial District, this race is between former-176th District Court Judge Stacey Bond and former-prosecutor-current-defense attorney Jason Luong.  Like many of the other races, the race is between two great candidates and I consider them both friends.

Judge Bond won election to the 176th in 2012 and served one term before falling victim to the Democratic sweep of 2016.  During her tenure, she was highly regarded by both the prosecution and the defense as a fair judge who did not play favorites with either side.  She was smart, compassionate and brave.  During her tenure, she made a finding of prosecutorial misconduct on a high profile trial, which subsequently barred retrial.  It was a rare move that angered many prosecutors, but it was a brave call that earned her the respect of the Defense Bar.  As noted in the Chronicle write up on this race, Judge Bond was the judge presiding over the now-infamous sexual assault trial that led to the incarceration of "Jenny," the mentally ill complainant.  Although she was admonished for her part in it, she was found to be remorseful about what occurred.  No one that knows Judge Bond would believe that she would ever have done anything to intentionally harm "Jenny."  She's too good of a judge and a person for that.

Jason Luong is also a great candidate for judge.  He's smart, funny, and cares about what happens within the Criminal Justice System.  He's a former prosecutor who has been doing criminal defense for some time now and he is a very active member of the Defense Bar.  He would make a very good judge.

NOTE: The Chronicle gave the endorsement to Jason Luong with 4 stars to Bond's 3 stars.  Without taking anything away from Jason, I think the editorial board is encouraging voters to regard Bond too harshly because of the "Jenny" situation.  She was an outstanding judge during her tenure in the176th and that one issue doesn't erase that.  Both candidates are completely worthy of your vote.

208th District Court -- Republican Judge Denise Collins (I) vs. Democrat Greg Glass
I found it pretty amusing to read the Chronicle's write up of the contest for the 208th as one of the least acrimonious political campaigns I've ever seen:
When we asked Glass why voters should support him over Collins, the experienced practitioner offered a short and insightful response: "Good question."
This race isn't that hotly contested because the two candidates are both really nice people who are well-liked within the Criminal Justice arena.  I don't know Judge Collins as well as I know some other judges on the Bench, but she has always been very nice to me. On those cases where I have appeared before her, Judge Collins has always been very invested in all of the cases before her and she genuinely cares about what happens to all of the parties involved.

I've known Greg Glass since I was a young prosecutor.  He is also a class act and I think he would make a good judge, too.  He's a very nice man who has been doing criminal defense since long before I showed up in Houston.  I have nothing negative to say about him.

NOTE:  The Chronicle graded both candidates with 3 stars, but gave the endorsement to Judge Collins, explaining "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."   Either choice would be a good one.

209th District Court -- Republican Judge Michael McSpadden (I) vs. Democrat Brian Warren
This race is a tough one to write about for me because my first real introduction to Harris County came as an academic intern to the D.A.'s Office in Judge McSpadden's court.  Judge McSpadden could not have been kinder and I really feel that I learned so much about how to handle myself as a prosecutor and later, a defense attorney because of that experience.

That being said, Democratic candidate Brian Warren is like a younger brother to me.  We served in the 174th District Court together, where we became good friends.  He sat with me on the first case I ever tried as a defense attorney.  I consider him and his wife, Katie, to be family friends.  He is one of those people that is the first to volunteer to help anyone at any time whenever possible. He is a good lawyer who would be a compassionate judge would an excellent demeanor.  He's a good man and I'm proud to call him my friend.

The race for the 209th is very much the picture of the New versus the Old.  Judge McSpadden is the longest serving Judge on the Bench, and even after practicing for almost 20 years, I still feel a small level of intimidation just stepping into his courtroom.  He is extremely formal which reclects the high level of seriousness and respect he holds for the Law and the Criminal Justice System.  He is the very definition of the term Old School.  Despite that, he was progressive in his views on the war on drugs long before being progressive was cool.   For as long as I can remember serving in his court, he freely spoke freely about his disdain for the D.A.'s Office filing crack pipe residue cases.  He has never been shy about speaking his mind.  Unfortunately, that got Judge McSpadden in some hot water with some controversial comments he made regarding the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year.

Brian Warren, by contrast, is extremely relaxed and outgoing.  He's far less formal than McSpadden and is much more open-minded to different ideas of how to handle cases.  If I had to guess, he would have a slightly more relaxed cell phone policy in court, if elected.

NOTE:  The Chronicle gave Warren the endorsement with 4 stars to McSpadden's 2.  Unsurprisingly, they took McSpadden to task for his earlier statements.

228th District Court -- Republican Judge Marc Carter (I) vs. Democrat Frank Aguilar
There are few people that I've met in life, let alone the courthouse, that I think more highly of than Judge Marc Carter.  In addition to being a family man, an Army veteran, and an Award-Winning Judge, he's also one of the nicest human beings that I've ever met.  Judge Carter's work with Veterans' Court has served as a model for other Veterans' Courts across the country and his compassion as a judge has earned him the respect and admiration of both the Defense Bar and the prosecution.  That's the reason that in years past, Judge Carter hasn't drawn an opponent.

I don't have anything negative to say about Democratic candidate Frank Aguilar other than wishing that he wasn't running against Judge Carter.  I knew Aguilar when he was a P.C. magistrate during my tenure at the D.A.'s Office.  He's a nice man, but he doesn't approach the level of experience, energy, kindness, and commitment that Judge Carter shows on a daily basis.

The race for the 228th absolutely exemplifies why partisan politics have no place in the Criminal Justice arena.  The fact that Judge Carter's job is in jeopardy based on Party affiliation is a travesty.  The reality is that even if Aguilar wasn't running against Carter, the Democratic Party would have found somebody else to challenge him.  Shame on them for that.  Other than partisan politics, there is no reason for anyone other than Judge Carter to be on that Bench,

NOTE:  The Chronicle rightfully endorsed Judge Carter with 5 stars (one of only 5 candidates to receive such a high rating and one of only two judges).  Aguilar, by contrast, only received 1 star, which was apparently the minimum allowed, since he didn't bother to show up to be interviewed by the editorial board.

230th District Court -- Republican Judge Brad Hart (I) vs. Democrat Chris Morton
It was the race for the 230th District Court that made me first realize that I wouldn't be making picks this year.  Both candidates are too close of friends of mine to make a choice.

Incumbent Judge Brad Hart was my first Chief at the District Attorney's Office and throughout my career there, he was somebody that I often turned to for advice -- both personal and professional.  He was a calm and rational voice of wisdom that was often a stark contrast to my personality.  He's a leader with integrity that I admire.  Before he was a judge, I knew it was a role he was born for, which is something that I've said time and time again.  I was honored to speak at his investiture.

Since serving on the bench, Judge Hart hasn't disappointed.  He runs a great court and he is widely respected as a well-liked and fair judge.  He's also very active in keeping everyone at the courthouse informed of what goes on behind the scenes.  He worked tirelessly during Hurricane Harvey to keep everything up and running, and to keep us all informed.  He still serves as a liaison in letting us know what progress (if any) is being made to get the Criminal Justice world back to normal.  In short, he is like the wiser, older brother I never had and he is an excellent judge.

The reason this race is difficult for me is that Chris Morton is also a good friend.  Our kids went to pre-school together.  We go to lunch on a semi-regular basis.  He's come over to my house to grab a beer and watch football a time or two.  He's a good lawyer who served as both a prosecutor and as a defense attorney.  He also served in the military.  When he told me that he was going to run for judge, I was very excited, because I knew that Chris Morton would make an excellent judge.  I initially thought he was going to run against Jan Krocker for the 184th, and I was very excited about that prospect.

When, due to some Party decisions made by the Democrats, he switched to running for the 230th, I think I immediately had an ulcer.  Two people that I think very highly of were running against each other, and I didn't know what to say about it.  So, if you want to blame me for wimping out on not giving any "endorsements" this season (for what they are worth), blame this race in particular.  I sincerely wish there was a different way this election cycle shook out and they both could be judges.

NOTE:  The Chronicle seems to have similar feelings, ranking both candidates with 3.5 stars and awarding the endorsement to Judge Hart.

232nd District Court -- Republican Judge Kristin Guiney (I) vs. Democrat Josh Hill
Other than Judge Marc Carter, the only judge to receive a 5 star rating from the Houston Chronicle was 232nd Judge Kristin Guiney.  Her opponent, Democrat Josh Hill was close behind with a 4.5 star rating, which was higher than most other candidates.

Both candidates are friends of mine, and, as noted in the Chronicle editorial, friends of each other.  Although Hill has not sought elected office before, Guiney was elected to the 179th District Court in 2012, but fell victim to the Democratic Sweep of 2016.  She was appointed to the 232nd last year when former 232nd Judge Mary Lou Keel was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals.  In both the 179th and the 232nd, Judge Guiney won very high marks from prosecutors and defense attorneys alike for being approachable, reasonable, and often creative in working to find just resolutions to the issues of her court.  She continues to work on solutions to overarching problems within the Criminal Justice System.  I found it interesting that the Chronicle noted that she should run for Congress.  I've had similar thoughts about Judge Guiney.

Josh Hill is also a great lawyer and a great guy.  His father, Wayne Hill, is also a longtime criminal defense attorney and the two work together, along with Josh's sister, Taryn Braun.   They are a great family and they have a long history in the Harris County Criminal Justice world.  Prior to becoming a defense attorney, Josh was a prosecutor with the D.A.'s Office.  He handles both trial cases and appellate cases, which would make him a good judge, as well.

NOTE:  As noted above, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Judge Guiney with 5 stars, with Hill close behind with 4.5 stars.  As in several other of the races, this race has someone who would make a great judge running against someone who already is one.

248th District Court -- Republican Judge Katherine Cabaniss (I) vs. Democrat Hilary Unger
Incumbent Republican Judge Katherine Cabaniss is defending the 248th bench against Democratic challenger Hilary Unger.

In the interest of full disclosure, Judge Cabaniss was my Chief during my time in the 174th and I consider her a family friend.  If I consider Judge Brad Hart to be like a big brother, Judge Cabaniss was kind of like a big sister during my time at the D.A.'s Office.  She's also a family friend that I think the world of.  Judge Cabaniss, as most people know, was a longtime prosecutor at the D.A.'s Office, who left as a District Court Chief.  Upon leaving the D.A.'s Office, she took over as head of CrimeStoppers for several years, before being appointed to the 248th.

I know Hilary Unger, but not nearly as well I know Judge Cabaniss.  Unger is a respected and insightful defense attorney who works very hard for her clients. She is active in the Harris County Criminal Lawyer's Association  She has always been very nice to me and I have no doubt that she would also make a great judge.

NOTE:  The Chronicle endorsed Judge Cabaniss with a 4 star rating, while giving Unger a 3.5 star rating.

262nd District Court -- Republican Tammy Thomas vs. Democrat Lori Chambers Gray
With the retirement of Judge Denise Bradley, the race for the 262nd features political newcomer (and former Division Chief Prosecutor), Tammy Thomas as the Republican candidate and defense attorney Lori Gray as the Democrat.

I'm a little biased in this one, because not only is Thomas from my hometown of Bryan, she also was my Chief in the 179th District Court.  Tammy was a career prosecutor who retired as a Division Chief in Special Crimes at the beginning of the Ogg Administration.  She was a great prosecutor and a phenomenal trial lawyer.  She was also a very reasonable prosecutor to deal with when it came to non-violent offenses.  I loved working for Tammy because she never pulled any punches when describing what she was thinking.  I love it that she told the Chronicle editorial board that she would be biased against bad attorneys.  Amen to that.

I don't have anything against Lori Chambers Gray, but I don't really know her except in passing.  She seems to run for office quite a bit, but I don't know that I've ever seen her in trial.  I'm sure she's a nice person, but she'd be hard pressed to be more dynamic candidate that Thomas.

NOTE:  The Chronicle gave their endorsement to Thomas with a 3.5 star rating, while giving Chambers 2 stars.

263rd District Court -- Republican Charles Johnson vs. Democrat Amy Martin
With the retirement of Judge Jim Wallace from the 263rd District Court bench, this is also a wide-open race with Republican defense attorney Charles Johnson running against Democratic candidate Amy Martin, who is both a trial and appellate attorney who has been in practice for 15 years.

I've known Charles for years, and on a personal level, I like him very much.  He's always gone out of his way to be nice to me.  That being said, a recent article in the Houston Chronicle is extremely concerning about his ability to be a judge.  In an article this morning, the Chronicle even went so far as to say he was one of the five worst candidates on the ballot this November.  Although I don't agree that Charles is a bad person, I do think that running for a Bench wasn't the best idea for him.

By contrast, I don't know Amy Martin very well, but I do know her reputation as an excellent and dedicated attorney.  She is completely free of the scandals that unfortunately follow Johnson, and is always willing to help other attorneys (including me!)  when they need legal advice on unusual issues that could spring up on appeal.  In short, Amy Martin is an outstanding candidate for judge.

NOTE:  Unsurprisingly, the Chronicle endorsed Martin with a 3.5 star rating.  Johnson scored the only 1 star.

313th District Court (Juvenile) -- Republican Glenn Devlin (I) vs. Democrat Natalia Oakes
As I usually note during election time, I don't do much juvenile law, so I'm a little outside of my depth when it comes to making endorsements in the three District Courts that handle juvenile cases.  My experience in juvenile largely consisted of a three-month stint in 1999 when I was assigned to the Division for the D.A.'s Office.

I do know all of the sitting Juvenile judges, however.  I met Judge Devlin during that 1999 stint, and I've always liked him.  He's a larger than life personality who has always been very friendly and outgoing.  In one of my (very) few appearances in Juvenile Court as a defense attorney, I appeared in front of him, and he was great.  I was disappointed to read the article in this morning's Houston Chronicle which pointed out that he (along with 314th District Court Judge John Phillips) were responsible for sending 20% of the juveniles in TYC to TYC.  That's an alarming statistic.

I don't believe that I've ever met his Democratic opponent Natalia Oakes, so I'm heavily reliant upon the Chronicle for any information that I have about her.  The Chronicle does not appear to be overly enthusiastic about her, lamenting that she did not have too many concrete plans for improving the Juvenile Justice System.

NOTE:  The Chronicle gives the endorsement to Oakes with a 3 star rating, as compared to Devlin's 2 stars.  Given the findings from today's article and Devlin's refusal to meet with the Editorial Board, this isn't surprising.

314th District Court (Juvenile) -- Republican John Phillips (I) vs. Democrat Michelle Moore
Like with Judge Devlin, I've known Judge Phillips from my brief stint in Juvie in 1999, when he was a defense attorney who regularly practiced in the 313th under then-Judge Pat Shelton.  He was always nice to me and we often stop to talk whenever we see each other walking to court in the mornings.  I like him, but I haven't dealt with him in a professional capacity in almost 20 years.

As with Judge Devlin, I was disappointed to see his name in the article in this morning's Houston Chronicle about the juvenile respondents sent to TYC.  Also, as with the race for the 313th, I don't know anything about the Democratic challenger, other than what I read in the Chronicle.

According to the Chronicle, Moore is a Harris County Attorney who handles CPS cases.  She is described as "well-qualified" and seems to have a very detailed plan for improving the court.

NOTE:  The Chronicle gives the endorsement to Moore with 3.5 star rating, compared to Phillips' 2 stars.  Phillips also refused to meet with the Editorial Board.

315th District Court (Juvenile) -- Republican Mike Schneider (I) vs. Democrat Leah Shapiro
The only incumbent Juvenile judge to receive the Chronicle's endorsement is 315th District Court Judge Mike Schneider.  Although I've never appeared before Judge Schneider, I know that he enjoys a very good reputation with those who do juvenile work.  While Devlin and Phillips have always had their critics, most people that I know have generally been very complimentary of Judge Schneider.  I've met Judge Schneider on several occasions outside of the courtroom, and he does seem to be a very nice guy.

His Democratic opponent, Leah Shapiro, is a very good friend of mine, and I think the world of her.  She is a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney and a longtime member of the Public Defender's Office.  She is smart, funny, and down-to-earth.  She would make a fantastic judge. It was actually Shapiro's candidacy that helped me put this year's election in perspective.  When asked why she was running against the highly-regarded Schneider, she pointed out that if she didn't, a less qualified candidate could easily take her place on the Democratic ticket.  It was a no brainer that the citizens of Harris County benefitted by having good candidates on both sides of the ballot.  She couldn't have been more correct about that.

NOTE:  As noted above, the Chronicle gave the endorsement to Judge Schneider with a 4 star rating, to Shapiro's 3.5 stars.  I would argue that both are equally qualified for the job.  Either way, it is a win-win scenario for the citizens of Harris County.

FINAL THOUGHTS:  As I've said before, whatever happens on Election Day will be largely governed by National politics and the race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke.  In the event of a close race, getting the vote out matters tremendously.  Make sure your family and friends get out and vote too.  Tell them your thoughts and opinions on the candidates.  Make lists with your recommendations and send them to everyone you know that votes in Harris County.  As a general rule, voters don't really pay attention to the Criminal Justice races.  Only we can change that.

No matter who you vote for, just make sure you get out and vote.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

An Eye Towards November

We are now officially one month away from Election Day, and people have been asking me when I'm planning on making my endorsements in the Criminal Justice Races for 2018.

Quite frankly, I've been dreading it. 

The reason that I've been dreading is that in almost every race this year, I have two friends (in some cases, close friends) running against each other.  Making recommendations under these circumstances is kind of like when my 4-year-old asked me at my birthday dinner whether I liked him or his brother better. 

Not to mention that who I endorse in these elections has absolutely no effect on the outcome.  What happens on November 6th will be dictated by National politics and the Beto O'Rourke/Ted Cruz election -- not me.

So, basically, I've viewed writing my endorsements as a fantastic opportunity to alienate literally half of my friends who are running, while effecting absolutely no change. 

But, I do want people who do bother to read this blog to know about the candidates.  I really do.  There are a lot of great candidates on both sides of the political spectrum and I want those people outside of the CJC World who do read this blog to know about them.  There are also some candidates running that aren't qualified to hold the positions they seek at all, and I definitely want the outside world to know about them.

As tough as this situation is for me personally, I think that it is a positive situation for Harris County.  We've all seen Party sweeps in the past that led to some very bad candidates taking power.  I'd much rather see situations where I know that we'll be in good hands regardless of who wins.

So, what I've decided to do is write up my election reviews, but withhold the official "endorsement" part of it.  I'll profile the races and the candidates.  I'll tell you the good, the bad and the ugly.  In some cases, who I think people should vote for may be very apparent.  In others, not so much.

As I learned in the primary season, this method will still piss off some of the candidates.  I was privately criticized for failing to criticize one candidate enough

I'll just have to take my chances with that.

Friday, October 5, 2018

More Musickal Micromanagement

For as long as anyone can remember, there has been a written policy in the Harris County District Attorney's Office regarding the handling of criminal cases involving fatalities.  Cases such as Murder, Manslaughter, Criminally Negligent Homicide, Intoxication Manslaughter, etc. all fell under the umbrella of what we called "Dead Body Cases" back in the days when I was there.

Although a prosecutor with the rank of Felony Two or higher was allowed to take a fatality case to trial, some decisions could only be decided by more senior prosecutors.  For instance, when a murder case was first filed, charges could only be accepted by the acting Chief who was working Intake at the time.  Although the Chief could file a murder charge, only a Division Chief could make the recommendation for what term of years could be made as part of a plea bargain offer.

Capital Murders, obviously, had a higher level of scrutiny because there were more decisions to be made.  Decisions like "is this case best filed as a capital or a non-capital murder?" and, more importantly, "do we seek the death penalty on this case?" had to be made by the elected District Attorney himself.  Capitals were reviewed by the Chief of the court they landed in, who then consulted with his or her Division Chief, who then took it to the Trial Bureau Chief, and then we all presented it to the District Attorney for the final decision.

The decision on how non-Capital Murders were handled was far less complicated.  The case landed in the court.  The Chief read it and decided whether he or she was going to handle it or pass it on to the Two.  Once the prosecutor had reviewed the evidence and talked to the victim's family, he or she met with the Division Chief, who would make the plea bargain recommendation.

It was a pretty simple process -- unless the case was extremely complicated, it was usually just a quick meeting.  All of the prosecutors involved relied on each other's knowledge of what they were doing.  I had the great fortune during my time as Chief that I supervised some very good Felony Twos.  I could rely on their assessments of cases.  Hopefully, my Division Chief had some level of confidence in me, as well.  I can only remember one instance where there was any disagreement over what recommendation to offer on a Murder case.

When Kim Ogg took over the Harris County District Attorney's Office, she vowed a review (and possible reworking) of the Office's Operations Manual.  It's only been 22 months since she made that vow, so we can still hold out hope that she might actually get that done before her first term of office is over.

In the meantime, the Powers that Be have recently decided that process of getting recommendations on Murder cases was just too damn simple.  Clearly, that meant that there was waaaaay too much discretion floating around in the Office.  Felony District Court Chiefs (who, once again, I will note have more experience at being a prosecutor than the Felony Trial Division Chief) were apparently running amok with their willy-nilly recommendations on Murder cases.

As usual, District Attorney Kim Ogg turned to the Grand Master of Micromanagement, JoAnne Musick, to get some Rules up in this place.

JoAnne did NOT disappoint.

In a memo this week, she outlined a modern marvel of procedure in the handling of Dead Body Cases.

Offers on Homicide Cases:
All offers on homicide cases must be approved by the Division Chief [JoAnne Musick] or her designee.  
"Designee?"  I feel like I'm back in law school, taking Trusts & Wills.
The general procedure shall be as follows:
The Chief of the court shall prepare a memorandum setting forth basic facts as well as mitigating facts and conclude with the Chief's recommendation.  A sample is attached.
Well, thank God there was a sample.  A high school education, college degree, law degree, and being a Chief Prosecutor in a Felony District Court in Harris County, Texas does not mean that you are smart enough to write a freaking memo from scratch, people.
The memorandum shall then be emailed to the appropriate Section Chief. 
What the hell is a "Section Chief"?  When did the Office get those?  Did we really need an additional layer of management between District Court Chiefs and Division Chiefs?
The Section Chief shall review the memorandum and, if appropriate, request clarification or additional information be added by the Court chief.  Once the Memorandum meets approval of the Section Chief, the Section Chief shall add any additional notes and state whether or not they concur with the chief's recommendation.  The Section Chief shall forward the final memo to the Division Chief and Deputy Division Chief.  If the offer is deemed appropriate, the Division Chief and Deputy Division chief shall then indicate upon the face of the memo to that the offer is approved and the final copy of the memorandum shall be added to eCase.  If the Division Chief and/or Deputy Division chief disagree with the recommendation, they shall schedule a meeting with the Court Chief and Section Chief to address their concerns.  Once an offer is approved, then, and only then, is the Court Chief authorized to convey the offer to the Attorney for the Defendant, or, in the case of a pro se Defendant, the Defendant.  Any counteroffers or deviations from the approved offer must be approved by the Division Chief.
So, if getting a recommendation on a Murder case was a football game, the process would look something like this:

I love the "once an offer is approved, then, and only then, is the Court Chief authorized to convey the offer . . ." which is JoAnne's little way of saying "your ass better not even think of deviating from my carefully planned out system."  Additionally, JoAnne has created a buffer zone with the requirement that the Section Chiefs must approve the form of the recommendation before bothering her (JoAnne) with looking at it.  I suppose this will give her more time to make up some more rules.

And the funny part is that after ALL OF THIS, a counteroffer (which, make no mistake about it, there will be a counteroffer) just goes directly back to the Division Chief.

And then JoAnne wrapped up her e-mail with this gem:
We know this is a departure from what has been happening since January 2017, and I'm sure you have plenty of questions.  For that reason, we will have a Q&A on Friday at 2:00 to address your concerns.
Um, yeah.  Because nothing makes learning a new ridiculously micromanaged new policy more palatable than having a meeting about it at 2:00 p.m. on a Friday.  Were you sure that you didn't want to just call a mandatory meeting at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday, Jo?

Look, I understand that Murder cases are the most important cases that a District Attorney's Office is tasked with prosecuting.  I'm not making light of that, nor am I suggesting that those cases not be taken seriously.   However, having good prosecutors who actually know how to try a murder case is far more important than having a regimented procedure of how to place recommendations of them.

Unfortunately, Kim Ogg and JoAnne Musick have proven to be much more adept at running experienced prosecutors out of the Office rather than cultivating them.  As long as they continue to get rid of good prosecutors, nobody is going to be all that impressed by the recommendations stemming from the Musick Plan.

It's just the sound and the fury, signifying nothing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Client Communications

Like most attorneys, I'm heavily reliant on my cell phone for pretty much everything I do in the course of my job.  From my calendar to my contact list to my case management software, I have everything I need on my cell phone.

I've also found that text messaging with my clients is the fastest and most efficient way to deal with quick questions that don't require full-length conversations.   If my client is out on bond, I make sure that they have my cell phone number and I tell them that the fastest way to get an answer from me about something is to just shoot me a text message.

Obviously, there can be some pitfalls with letting clients have your cell number.  Clients and their family members sometimes don't respect the fact that you might not appreciate a phone call at 5:30 a.m., for instance.  Sometimes clients give your number to "prospective clients" who don't have any intention of hiring you, but would love some free legal advice since they have your number.

But, on the whole, the benefits have outweighed the downsides for me. So, I always exchange cell phone numbers with my clients when we first meet.

This morning, I was appointed on a new case.  After giving her my business card, I went through the usual steps of giving my new client my cell phone number.

It went something like this:

ME:  I usually communicate with my clients by text message, so let me get your cell phone number.


I created a new contact for her.

ME:  I'm going to send you a text message now, so that you have my cell phone number.

CLIENT:  Okay.

I send her a text message that reads:  "This is Murray."

ME:  Okay, we don't have any of the Discovery on the case so I'm going to go get you a reset and get you out of here today.

CLIENT:  Okay,  Sounds good.

I then went to reset the case.  As I was talking to the coordinator, I received a text message.

Literally, two minutes had passed since I had texted her.

I got the reset and then walked over to the client, who was looking at her cell phone.

ME: I'm Murray.  I told you I was sending you my cell number.

CLIENT:  What?

ME:  You just texted me "Murray who".

CLIENT:  No, I didn't.

She then looked at her phone.  

CLIENT:  Oh wait, yeah I did.

These are the types of moments that never seem to make it into legal dramas.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lessons in Leadership

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Ryan Patrick was formally sworn in during his investiture ceremony yesterday.  The Houston Chronicle's Gabrielle Banks wrote this article describing the ceremony, which I noted was a little different from the original article she wrote about the event yesterday.  I tried to find the original article online because it had some interesting quotes from some of the Assistant U.S. Attorneys that work for Patrick, as well as some quotes from Federal judges and defense attorneys.  Unfortunately, the original version seems to be unavailable.

This quote from Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal did make it into the final version of the article:
"He comes from a political family but his current focus is not on politics, it's on policy," Rosenthal said. "And that is how it should be as he faces intensely tactical problems of running this large and complicated office in our large and very complicated district . . . at a large and complicated time."
In the original article, Banks quoted a few others, including Mark Donnelly,  Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney, who noted that Patrick's approach to leading is dictating the policies of the Office and then relying on his experienced AUSAs to do their jobs effectively.  Apparently, this is causing a high boost in morale within the U.S. Attorneys Office and, lo and behold, the Office seems to be running well.  The original article quoted defense attorney Charles Flood, who was also highly complimentary of the way the Office is being run by Patrick.

The original article was striking because it described an office of prosecutors that seemed to run on a philosophy that is the polar opposite of the Harris County District Attorney's Office under D.A. Kim Ogg.  In the earlier article on Patrick, it described his desire to stay away from micro-management, in favor of relying on professional prosecutors who were doing the job and doing it well before he took office.

By contrast, Kim Ogg has . . .  well, Kim Ogg has JoAnne Musick.

While Ryan Patrick is getting lauded for running an office where prosecutors are enjoying their jobs and their office's clearly stated principles, Musick continues to run through low level disposed cases with a microscope.  While Patrick treats the prosecutors who held their jobs long before he arrived with the respect they earned, Musick continues to talk to prosecutors (with far more prosecutorial experience than her) as if they were children.

Just a side note here, let's not forget that JoAnne originally left the D.A.'s Office as a relatively new Felony Two.  She never got close to earning the stripes of Felony Chief, but that still doesn't keep her from dressing down far more senior prosecutors.  I've mentioned this twice before.  The first time was back in February.  The second time was less than a month ago.

In the four weeks since I wrote that last post, two more senior Felony Chiefs have declared their intention to leave the Harris County District Attorney's Office and head to work for the U.S. Attorney's Office under the leadership of Ryan Patrick.

Who could blame them?  If one were given the choice of working for an Office with a clear vision statement that comes with being treated with respect versus an Office guided solely by public opinion where senior prosecutors are treated like dim-witted children, it really isn't much of a contest, is it?

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas is thriving while the Harris County District Attorney's Office is a sad shell of what it used to be.

Kim Ogg should learn a lesson in leadership from Ryan Patrick.

Episode Seven: The Voters Awaken - A One Act -Sci-Fi Play

SCENE:  The Death Star orbits over Downtown Houston. [INTERIOR] The Imperial Council Chambers. EMPRESS OGG sits at the head of a long table ...