Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cases postponed while Dallas judges pout at home?

After most incumbent judges in Dallas state courts lost their jobs on election day, reports DallasBlog, some of them stopped showing up for work:
The morning after the election, Dallas County lawyers showed up for trials and hearings, as did their hard-working clients. Some citizens had to miss work, arrange baby sitters, and make their way to courts.

But, like petulant children who had lost a game fair and square, nearly all Republican criminal court judges and many civil court judges stayed home.

According to the Local Fox News channel, “the GOP [judges] who failed to show created a logjam in the courthouse. Everywhere there were people facing felony or misdemeanor charges who took the day off to attend court. But without judges there, many of them found their hearings and trials postponed.” Many judges didn’t show up for the rest of the week. Rumor has it some will stay away until their terms expire.

This article by attorney and Democratic activist Ed Ishmael was published Friday on DallasBlog, but sounds like it was written a couple of weeks ago from the language. By now, surely, we'd know if that were true, especially if some judges won't return through the rest of their term. The only source cited (but not linked) was a FOX News report from the evening after the elections (Watch the video clip depicting a teacher who brought students on a field trip to watch the judiciary at work, roaming from courtroom to courtroom only to find the no-show judges' dockets canceled.)

But that was the Wednesday after the elections three weeks ago, and DallasBlog published Ishmael's article two days ago. Perhaps some Big D-area attorneys or courthouse workers frequenting Grits could tell us? If it's true "many" judges stayed out the rest of the week, who were they? Does anyone know if it's accurate some Republican criminal judges STILL are on walkout, and if so, who? Let me know in the comments, please, if you have firsthand knowledge on this.

Several commenters on DallasBlog disputed Ishmael's depiction, e.g.: "Most Judges have been down here at the Crimnal Courthouse. Judge Burson doesn't seem to come in but the rest are." Judge Bruce Woody said he'd cleared his dockets ahead of time for the two days after the election and took planned vacation days, noting he'd done the same thing after elections he'd won in the past, knowing he'd be tired from campaigning. Another lawyer declares: "I have been to the Criminal Courthouse every day since the election. It is business as usual. Judges are hearing trials, taking pleas and working hard as usual."

I don't know Mr. Ishmael and have no reason to disbelieve him, but this account seems incredible to me - the kind of behavior I expected from my daughter when she was a teenager (her beautiful new baby Ty is doing great, btw), not from a state district judge.

Though it doesn't mention it per se, Ishmael's column with its dated citations appears to have been pulled out of the can (not a disparagement, I do that too) in response to a recent Dallas Observer piece questioning the qualifications of one of the new district judges who is about to preside over a complex death penalty case even though he's mostly worked misdemeanor courts.

I thought the Dallas Observer piece was an interesting depiction myself. In that particular case, it probably is true the new, less experienced Democratic judge will have his hands full with the complicated death penalty case the US Supreme Court has sent back down to him. On the other hand, since the Supreme Court overturned the state's last case two different times, the more experienced judge didn't do such a great job in the first place, did he?

What's more, insiders tell me that far more important than the judge's experience in the Miller-El case will be how the new Democratic District Attorney chooses to handle the Supreme Court's dicta - whether he'll acquiesce to the highest court's will or continue to buck their authority to appear "tuff on crime," which is how departing GOP DA Bill Hill approached the case so far?

Electing judges and prosecutors has problems, but so do life appointments made through a flawed political process. In a past life as a political opposition researcher, I've worked on several judicial campaigns as a paid consultant (maybe 20 or so, actually), and I can tell you it IS possible for voters to oust bad judges. I believe there's an opportunity to do that for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, if Democrats can find the cojones to seize it.

We just don't get that opportunity in an appointed judicial system. Clarence Thomas is on the high US court for good, and I largely find his views an intellectual embarassment. But what to do? I want the public to retain the means to oust the bastards, when need be.

I'm glad voters took that opportunity in Dallas County to instill new blood on the bench, but they did it for a reason - they aren't satisfied with the direction of the county, the state, the nation, and in the case of judges the justice system. Some of the ousted Republicans were fine jurists, but the world will keep spinning on its axis despite their departure - the graveyards are filled with indispensible people.

I think the new folks will do fine, mostly, and fail sometimes, like we all do. That's true of every judge - even the best of them. But each deserves a chance to do the job before bitter pols start trashing them. What's more, the Republicans on their way out deserve the same courtesy - they should be judged on their individual, overall records of service, not partisan spin about when they decided to shedule their day off - not without more evidence than was presented on DallasBlog.

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