Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tony's restaurant company sued for having churchgoers' cars towed


Tony's Vallone's restaurant company sued over tow of cars parked by Lakewood Church worshipers at his restaurant in Greenway Plaza on a Sunday 

Five people who say their cars disappeared while they attended Sunday services at Lakewood Church in August 2013 have brought a lawsuit against Timmons Restaurant Partners, LTD for wrongfully towing their vehicles parked near Tony's at 3744 Richmond Ave.

In addition to naming the restaurant company, the plaintiffs bring claims against Meyerland Collision & Towing, Inc. and Apple Towing. Tony Vallone is named in the petition as agent for service, and is not being sued as an individual.



In their complaint, filed yesterday (12/29/2014), the churchgoers seek to recover reimbursement of expenses incurred for towing and storage, statutory fees and damages, and litigation expenses including attorney's fees.

The plaintiffs are bringing the civil action as a class action, to allow for inclusion of others who also had their vehicles removed while attending church but did not pursue legal recourse as co-plaintiffs. The named plaintiffs claim in their original petition that more than a dozen people were stranded in the mid-summer heat after they came out from the church and found that their vehicles were gone.

Lakewood Church attendees' complaint about having their cars towed on orders of Tony's Restaurant 
The lawsuit was filed electronically with the Harris County District Clerk and was assigned to the 11th District Court, presided over by Judge Mike D. Miller. The aggrieved church-goers are represented by The Webster Law Firm, with Omar R. Chawdhary shown as attorney in charge.

It should be noted that facts stated in court pleadings are just allegations and that most need not even be denied specifically once a defendant has been served and are required to file an answer.

To enhance their exposition of the facts in this case, the plaintiffs attorneys inserted two photographs of the location from which the vehicles were allegedly towed. Inclusion of images is not a common litigation practice for initial pleadings.


CASE INFO: Cause No: 2014-74250 Daniel E. Timmins et al vs. Timmons Restaurant Partners LTD, et al, pending in Harris County District Court, 11th Judicial District.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Appellate Court Output (FY 2014): Justices Christopher and Radack lead in number of opinions, Frost and Keyes show most independent streak


The 2014 Annual Statistical Report on the Texas Judiciary has not yet been released, but much of the new data for the fiscal year that ended Aug 31, 2014 is already available on the Office of Court Administration's website, including productivity stats.

So how did the members of the two Houston-based courts of appeals compare this year?

14TH COURT OF APPEALS: CHIEF AS LEADING DISSENTER  

On the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, the annual opinion output ranged from a low of 84 to a high of 163 (leaving aside the 12 opinions written by Justice Jeff Brown before he received his promotion to the Texas Supreme Court from the Governor). The most productive member was Justice Tracy Christopher, whose jurisprudence also included a combined total of 13 dissents and concurrences, the second highest number of such opinions after Chief Justice Kem Thompson Frost, who took the lead with 21. With a total of 80, Justice Christopher also authored the highest number of signed original opinions on the merits. The number of per curiam opinions was relatively even across the membership of this court, with slightly over 70 per justice except for those who were not on the court for the entire fiscal year. Dissenting and concurring opinions were much rarer for other members of this court, but each penned at least one separate opinion. The tally for the court as a whole was 1,220 for Fiscal Year 2013-2014. Its share of all concurring and dissenting opinions was much higher than its share of the statewide caseload, making the fourteenth an interesting court to watch.



1ST COURT OF APPEALS: CHIEF WRITES THE MOST OPINIONS, KEYES AGAIN TAKES HONORS AS CHIEF DISSENTER  

On the First Court of Appeals, the most prolific opinion-author was Chief Justice Sherry Radack, with a total of 207, none of which were dissents. Chief Radack took the lead in original opinions on the merits (122) as well as per curiam opinions (84). Justices Bland and Keyes came in second and third, with totals of 156 and 154, respectively, closely followed by Justice Harvey Brown, with 151.

The least productive justices on this court -- at least as gauged by the official metric -- were Rebeca Huddle and Jim Sharp. Sharp came in last with only 110. (Sharp since lost his bid for re-election; he was the only incumbent among the courts of appeals who was defeated in the November 2014 general election.). It may come as something of a surprise that the only Democrat on the court penned only 4 dissenting opinions. Going into the re-election contest, Sharp touted himself as a different voice on the court, and campaigned with the slogan "BALANCED JUSTICE IS A GOOD THING". But as now revealed by the OCA's official tally, his Republican colleague Justice Evelyn Keyes found much more frequent occasion to disagree with her fellow Republicans on the court than Democrat Sharp, and went to the trouble of articulating the basis of her divergent views of the issues presented by appellants and appellees by setting them forth in separate opinions. Some justices merely note their disagreement, or concur only in the result, without saying why. Justice Keyes handed down 12 dissents and 6 other separate opinions, more than three times as many as Maverick Sharp. Keyes was also the most prolific dissenter in the previous fiscal year that ended August 31, 2013. See prior post on Who Dissents the Most on the Houston Courts of Appeals (based on the Annual Report for the 2013 Fiscal Year).

The total number of opinions the First Court of Appeals issued in fiscal year 2014 was 1,290, which is slightly higher than the annual caseload processed and disposed of with opinion by its sister court in the same time span.



SOME CAVEATS, CAUTIONS, AND COMMENTS ABOUT OPINION-COUNT AS A YARDSTICK OF APPELLATE PRODUCTIVITY  

It is assumed that counting and reporting procedures are consistently applied to all members of the court. But there are potential sources of error or of debatable coding and counting, particularly in relation to one-page orders and opinions. Should they be counted and aggregated with long merits opinions or not? Also, mediation referral orders are longer than some opinions, but are basically templates. They are nevertheless typically issued in the name of justices, which is also true of other procedural orders. As such, they should not count as part of a justice's productivity. It is not clear if any such orders are counted and reported to the Office of Court Administration, and whether any opinions, which often even shorter, are deleted from the count.

On the other hand, sometimes a procedural matter and resultant order is complex enough to merit being counted as an opinion, while some opinions -- especially routine dismissal opinions based on non-payment or failure to file a brief and denials of mandamus petitions -- do not merit being regarded as opinions for statistical purposes at all, especially not as a measure of productivity. They are simply not the equivalent to an opinion that resolves a legal issue and gives guidance to courts below and practicing attorneys in future cases. At least they should not be lumped into the same category as merits opinions that have substantive content even if they are not reported in the Southwestern Reporter and are  not precedent-setting.

Comparability of aggregate opinion counts across the fourteen courts of appeals is also somewhat doubtful. The Houston Courts of Appeals now issue many more orders online (on the dated opinion/order release pages) than they used to.

Sample Opinion/Order Release Page - 14th Court of Appeals
New layout after recent court website redesign and
migration to new domain / URL
Other courts of appeals have other practices which may extend to the manner in which they classify opinions/orders for statistical purposes in addition to decisions as to what gets displayed and hyper-linked on the pages featuring daily releases. Variation in classification practices may affect the statistics for an entire court relative to sister courts. Comparisons of productivity measured by numbers of opinions reported by or on behalf of different appellate courts are accordingly not necessarily completely reliable. The same problem would affect a comparison of the total number of orders and opinion issued on the courts' websites on opinion release dates.

Another problem affecting comparability, though relatively minor, are appellate opinions that resolve several cases which are consolidated for briefing or are companion cases. They appear as an opinion on the docket for each case, but they are really just one opinion.

A better measure of productivity would be one that is sensitive to the length of opinions measured by pages (of the pdf files) or number of words (a metric already required for e-briefs to enforce length limitations), rather than merely the bare count without any differentiation as to short vs. long, and complex vs. routine. Complexity cannot easily be quantified, of course, but length should make for a suitable proxy; -- one that can be implemented in a consistent and reliable fashion by purely technical means with no subjective component whatever.

Another measure to enhance comparability, and make aggregate numbers more meaningful in representing amount of work, time, and effort, would be to strictly exclude from the count all one-page and two-page orders and opinions (such as dismissal orders and orders denying mandamus relief in one sentence or two), as well as form/template-based orders even if they exceed two pages. This criterion could be supplemented with a provision that allows the assigned justice to designate an opinion or order that would not otherwise qualify to be counted to nevertheless be exempted from the cut-off and be counted as "non-routine" for case-specific reasons despite brevity, or as useful as guidance for other appellate practitioners. This special designation could also be shown on the opinion release page on the relevant date as an additional value in the data field that currently identifies the released items as memorandum opinion, signed opinion with author's name, or "order" under the "Case Number" column header.

EXAMPLES OF ROUTINE ONE-PAGE AND TWO-PAGE "OPINIONS" 

Example of  2-sentence Memo Op - Denial of Petition for Habeas Corpus relief 
Examples of two-page "Opinion" dismissing case for nonpayment of fees
Example of single-page opinion dismissing appeal
per agreement of the parties 
FOR COMPARISON: OPINION PRODUCTION BY THE TEXAS SUPREME COURT IN FY2014 WAS MUCH LOWER, COMPARED TO THE INTERMEDIATE COURTS, REFLECTING DISCRETIONARY REVIEW 

Opinions of the Texas Supreme Court by Justice (FY 2014)
Opinions written by Texas Supreme Court Justice in FY2014: Total of 115 ranging from 7 to 12 among members. 

KEY TERMS: Texas Courts of Appeals, appellate statistics, appellate opinions, Houston courts of Appeals, First Court of Appeals, Fourteenth Court of Appeals, Texas Supreme Court, disposition patterns, dissents and concurrences, measuring court productivity, methodological issue, quantifying justice.



Saturday, November 22, 2014

2014 Texas Judicial Elections Results - Appellate Courts - and a look back at winning margins in 2008


2014 APPELLATE RACES: REPUBLICANS KEEP TIGHT GRIP ON HIGHEST COURTS, AND WIN ALL BUT ONE COURT OF APPEALS RACE   

Republicans remain firmly in control of the state's two highest courts and courts of last resort: Supreme Court of Texas and Court of Criminal Appeals. The members of both courts are elected statewide.

SUPREME COURT AND CCA RACES: WIDE MARGINS OF VICTORY 

In the Supreme Court races, three of the Republican incumbents did better than Greg Abbott in this bid for the governorship, but only in terms of winning percentages. The raw vote totals for the judicial candidates were lower, except for Phil Johnson, who did not draw a Democratic challenger. The same pattern holds for the CCA. The candidates who did not draw a Democratic opponent garnered higher total vote numbers, and a higher percentage of the vote than the successful Republican contender in the gubernatorial race.


Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, the longest-serving member of the high court for civil and juvenile cases, won with 59.57% of the vote; Associate Justice Jeff Brown won with 60.31%; Justice Jeff Boyd garnered 58.88%; and long-time Associate Justice Phil Johnson won with 78.78%  -- the highest margin -- in a race that did not have a Democratic contender.

Complexion of Tex. Sup. Ct. won't change as a result of 2014 election 
Texas Supreme Court Membership Roster (2014)
On the Court of Criminal Appeals, Kevin Patrick Yeary won with 76.29% of the vote in a contest that did not feature a Democratic opponent, giving minor-party candidates a chance to test their ability to pick up part of the Democratic vote; David Newell won with 78.28% in a race that likewise featured only a Libertarian and Green candidate, but no Democratic opponent. In the third race for seats on that court, Bert Richardson faced a Democratic opponent in addition to a Libertarian and won with 59.82%.

COURTS OF APPEALS

Member of the courts of appeals are elected from their respective appellate districts. This means that they are more competitive, - at least some of them, but not always.

In San Antonio (4thCOA), Republican Sandee Bryan Marion defeated Democrat Irene Rios with 55.50% of the vote. This was the judicial equivalent of an open-seat contest following Chief Justice Catherine Stone's decision not to seek re-election.
 
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin also featured an open contest for chief justice: Republican Justice Jeff Rose, a sitting member of the court, defeated Democrat Diane Henson, a former member of the Austin Court, with 54.14% of the vote versus Henson's 45.85%. Chief Justice J. Woodfin "Woodie" Jones had decided not to stand for re-election. The outcome will give the new governor an  opportunity to make an appointment for the position vacated by Rose upon ascension to the position of chief.
 
In Houston, Republican Chief Justice Kem Thompson Frost successfully defended against Democrat Kyle Carter, a Harris County District Court judge first elected in 2008, with 57.59% of the vote. Incumbent Ken Wise, formerly a District Court Judge in Harris County, prevailed over his Democratic opponent Gordon Goodman with 58.24% of the vote.

The only incumbent Democrat on the First Court of Appeals, also in Houston, lost to Republican challenger Russell Lloyd. The vote was 57.13% for Lloyd, and 42.86% for Jim Sharp, who was elected to the appellate court in 2008, when Democrats also swept Republican judges from their benches in Harris County, which went with Obama while much of Texas voted for McCain. In that election, Sharp was the only Democrat to win an appellate bench in the Houston Court of Appeals district which includes Harris County and nine additional counties, which makes the appellate district more conservative/red than Harris County alone, not to mention the City of Houston, which elects Democratic mayors.

In Dallas Craig Stoddart, recently appointed by Governor Rick Perry to fill a vacancy, prevailed with 55.59% over Ken Molberg in the contest involving the unexpired term.

In Corpus Christi (13thCOA), Democratic incumbent Dori Contreras Garza won reelection to Place 6 on the Thirteenth Court of Appeals -- but just barely -- with 50.96% of the vote, less than 2% over Doug Norman, her Republican opponent. The difference was less than 5,000 votes (based on unofficial results as of 11/22/2014).

In sum, Republicans won all appellate races save one. Of only two Democratic incumbents in these races, one lost and the second one survived by the skin of her teeth.

DATA SOURCE: Unofficial 2014 General Election Results from the Texas Secretary of State

PARTISAN TIDES

Judicial races are down-ballot races that are driven by straight-ticket voting and partisan tides. That does not make candidate-specific attributes, incumbents’ record and standing with the attentive public, or campaign efforts by them or on their behalf irrelevant, but it makes these factors more important when contests are close. This may not have been the case in 2014 (even without the benefit of hindsight), but 2008 was another matter. Unsurprisingly, Democratic candidates for judicial positions did better in a presidential election that turned the White House back over to a Democrat, but not everywhere. Much has to do with the electoral geography of Texas.  

LOOKING BACK: 2008 DEMOCRATIC WINS IN APPELLATE COURT RACES, AND MARGINS OF VICTORY THEN  

In 2008, Obama did not win Texas (55.45% of the statewide vote went to McCain), but a number of Democrats were elected or re-elected to court of appeals benches with votes shares ranging from just barely over 50% to as high as 66.48%.
  
Democratic challenger Woodie Jones unseated incumbent Republican Chief Justice Ken Law in Austin (3rd Court of Appeals) with 52.40% of the vote.
  
In San Antonio, Democrat Catherine Stone, originally appointed to a vacancy by Governor Ann Richards in 1994, prevailed over Republican Ann Comerio in the contest for Chief Justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals with 55.81% of the vote.  
   
In El Paso (8th Court of Appeals), Democrat Guadalupe “Lupe” Rivera put Republican Kenneth R. “Kenn” Carr in the shade with a 66.48% landslide.
   
In Corpus Christi, Dori Contreras Garza beat Republican Caroline Bertuzzi with 58.58% of the vote.
  
In Houston, Democrat Jim Sharp beat Republican Ed Hubbard in the contest for a position on the First Court of Appeals with a narrow margin (50.57%). Hubbard had defeated the incumbent in the Republican primary. Republican incumbent Laura Carter Higley, who was also up for reelection, was able to hold on to her bench with 51.23% of the vote, warding off a challenge by Leslie C. Taylor
  
On the sister court in the same city, the Fourteenth Court of Appeal, incumbent Chief Adele Hedges faced a challenge by Democrat Joe W. Beverly and survived -- but just barely – with 50.96% of the vote. Three other Republican incumbents on that court also held on to their positions, all with less than 52% of the vote. The margins of victory and mixed outcome (the first Democrat was elected to one of two previously all-Republican appellate courts) made Houston the most competitive appellate battleground in the 2008 general election. In Harris County, the partisan tide had a much more sweeping impact on the district courts because Harris County voted for Obama, though the surrounding counties (which are part of the appellate district that elects the members of the 1st and 14th Court of Appeals) did not.
   
In Dallas, Republicans won all three appellate races with more than 52% of the vote. Republican Rex Davis on the 10th Court of Appeals in Waco cruised to victory with the highest margin on the Republican side: 63.92% of the vote. 
   
Electoral geography matters. Judicial races are no different.

2014 TEXAS JUDICIAL ELECTION LINKS:

Texas Appellate Law Blog (blogpost summarizing results of 2014 appellate races)
Texas Judge Race (2014 pre-election/campaign information with links to campaign finance reports filed with Texas Ethics Commission)
Houston Chronicle endorsements in local appellate races: For Courts of Appeals  (Oct 13, 2014)
Houston Bar Association 2014 Judicial Candidate Qualification Poll: 2014 HBA Poll of judicial candidates in contested races (Table of Result)
State Bar of Texas Judicial Poll Results (note disclaimer): 2014 SBOT Judicial Poll

TEXAS APPELLATE SYSTEM -  2 LEVELS OF APPELLATE COURTS - TWO HIGH COURTS WITH DIVISION OF LABOR FOR CIVIL AND CRIMINAL CASES 

Structure of Appellate Court System in Texas

THIRTEEN COURT OF APPEALS DISTRICTS: FIRST AND FOURTEENTH OVERLAP 

Texas appellate districts shown on map: Numbers match Courts of Appeals
First through Fourteenth 










Friday, October 31, 2014

Holy smoke: Houston Judge looking for a few weed-minded votes ... on Halloween night


Embattled First Court of Appeals Incumbent His Honner Jim Sharp -- don't call him Mr. Sharp or else - must be getting desperate a few days before the election ..... He is a scheduled speaker at Houston NORML's Halloween  event ... oops ... Halloweed event -- or so NORML says.

The Seal of the State of Texas / Judicial Branch is prominently featured on the appearance-just-confirmed announcement on the organization's Facebook page, and his Court of Appeals bio page is hot-linked. What the hell with this lending-prestige-of-judicial-office-thing....it was just a public reprimand last time around anyhow.
 
Gotta make clear to the cannabis-loving crowd that this Sharp fella is not just an ordinary Joe Schmoe down the street. Or a less-than-judicial impostor.


Jim Sharp lending prestige of judicial office to organization advocating controversial cause -

You thought you got a good idea how Big Jim knows to swear like a sailor when he earned his rebuke from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct!?

Wait until he gets high on the weed vote!

Or perhaps it's all part of good-natured trick-o-treating, ... if not a vast politically motivated conspiracy to sully the public standing of a jurist of great stature.

A man known to take a stand. A true local icon. 


THE HONOURABLE JIM SHARP - HOUSTON'S DESKTOP JURIST
The Houston Chronicle editorialized against him ("Voter should remember Justice Sharp's Temper Tantrum") and the bar poll favored his non-incumbent opponent.

Public Official Jim Sharp Twitter Stats: 35 Followers, 10 Favorites 

Jim Sharp's luckluster campaign on Twitter: 35 Followers
Jim Sharp's Re-election Campaign on Twitter: Don't Miss Any Updates 

HOUSTON CHRONICLE REMINDED VOTERS 
THAT JIM SHARP IS UNFIT FOR JUDICIAL OFFICE

Houston Chronicle reminds area voters of Justice Jim Sharp's temper tantrum
Chronicle comes out against Justice Jim Sharp re-election bid
Link: http://www.chron.com/opinion/recommendations/article/Courts-of-Appeals-5822853.php 

FOR FURTHER STUDY: Click link to Texas Code of Judicial Conduct 
on Texas Judiciary web site 








Sunday, October 5, 2014

Houston Court of Appeals Justice Jim Sharp soon to face the voters' verdict for misconduct in office


Judicial Elections as a Remedy to Improve the Judicial System  

Having distinguished himself with a formal reprimand by the Texas Commission of Judicial Conduct, followed by a like resolution by a special court of inquiry assembled by the Texas Supreme Court -- in his very first term on the First Court of Appeals, no less - Houston Court of Appeals Justice Jim Patrick Sharp is facing his forthcoming demise as a public official at the ballot box. Elected in 2008 by a narrow margin, Justice Sharp is up for re-election this election season as his 6-year term ends Dec 31, 2014. He performed poorly in the Houston Bar Association's poll of judicial candidates. 


Jim Sharp: Seeking re-election in 2014 to seat on First Court of Appeals
despite Censure by Judicial Conduct Commission 
Sharp's antics range from jumping on his desk and having his picture taken by a photographer for the Houston Chronicle, removing  furniture under cover of darkness without facility management
approval from his erstwhile chamber in the building of the South Texas College of Law to the newly restored 1910 Harris County Courthouse, and picking a fight with security personnel at said courthouse merely because they were doing their humble jobs and would not let him bypass the metal detector screening without showing his badge.

But nothing exemplifies the complete lack of judicial temperament and decorum more starkly than the tirade Sharp launched against employees of the Brazoria County Juvenile Probation Department when they wouldn't accommodate his intervention, seeking -- with reference to his authority as a member of the court of appeals overseeing the judges of ten counties -- the immediate release of the juvenile daughter of a female friend who had been caught shop-lifting; -- "popped", as Sharp put it.

Sharp's rants against the Brazoria County officers involved in the juvenile matters ran the gamut of appellations from "arrogant little prick" and "son of a bixxx" to "stupid axxhole" to "xxxxsuckers".

In his subsequent disciplinary proceeding Sharp sought to justify his impertinent outburst, and use of gutter slang, by averring -- ironically -- that he had to make sure they understood that he was not just a "Joe Schmo down the street". He also averred that he was just "venting".

A psychiatrist hired by Sharp, Dr. Stephen Tew, offered a mild diagnosis of adult attention deficit disorder, but conceded that it was not the sole producing cause of the wayward conduct that brought Sharp to the attention of the Judicial Conduct Commission. In other words, the man has behavioral issues, and they cannot be chalked up to a mental conditions as some sort of clinical excuse for clearly inappropriate behavior.

Dr Stephen Tew's fee for testimony on behalf of Justice Jim Sharp in his disciplinary case
before a special court as reported to the Texas Ethics Commission
Sharp was not just venting. He was trying to use his official position as a member of the First Court of Appeals to secure special favors for the teenage child of a woman with whom he had some sort of personal relationship; accompanied by a tirade of verbal abuse so vile it makes one cringe merely reporting it.

At the end of the disciplinary process, the not-so Honorable Jim Sharp was not removed from office. Nor deprived of his perch and the power to do more harm to the integrity of the judicial system through his participation in appellate decision-making. But that will likely happen, come November.

Democracy has its quirks. It can get unqualified people into public office, to be sure, but it can also flush them out when they betray the public's expectations, and the citizenry's trust. The ballot box can deliver much deserved justice when the peers that get to pass judgment and censor an errant colleague in the disciplinary process stop short of removing him from the bench he has sullied.

 Public official Jim Sharp's less than judicious choice of words:
The Honorable Jim Sharp's Cursing documented in the course of disciplinary process
Some of the findings on Sharp's verbal abuse of county employees 
THE CASE OF HOUSTON JUDGE JIM SHARP 
Now judicial ethics continuing education material 

Jim Sharp as course material for presentation on judicial ethics
https://static.ark.org/eeuploads/ag/GOOD_LESSONS_FROM_BAD_JUDGES_AG_2014_Materials.pdf

LINKS TO EXAMPLES OF JUSTICE SHARP'S SELF-INFLICTED BAD PRESS

Houston Chronicle editorial on Justice Jim Sharp’s poor judgment (2012)  
Houston judge (Jim Sharp) censored for 'abusive' behavior (2012 Houston Chronicle article) 
Houston Press: Judge Jim Sharp - Rate His Cursing as the tries to spring friend's daughter from jail (9/7/2012) 

HOW CANDIDATE SHARP RATES WITH LOCAL ATTORNEYS: BAR POLL RESULT


Incumbent Jim Sharp's standing with the local bar (HBA Judicial Preference Poll)
Local Bar Poll Results: Jim Sharp lagging behind even though he is the incumbent
with better name-recognition

HALLOWEEN UPDATE: HOLY SMOKE!
The Hon Jim Sharp - featured speaker at Houston NORML Halloween ("Halloweed") event. 
Looking for a few last-minute weed-minded votes?



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ex-Judge Denise Pratt (non) news - Sanctions pronouncement by State Commission on Judicial Conduct "with all deliberate speed"



Former Harris County Family District Court Judge Denise Pratt finally slapped on the wrist by the State Commission of Judicial Conduct for tardiness and apparent back-dating of orders to cover up her lack in diligence in getting the business of the court done. Ironically, the sanctions opinion was tardy too. Pratt is long gone from office and lost her bid for re-election.  




The pdf version of the sanctions order, issued September 4, 2014, can be found at http://www.scjc.state.tx.us/pdf/actions/FY2015-PUBSANC.pdf

Here is a text verbatim (it' a rather tedious read). 
The bottom line: A Public Reprimand.
Given all the coverage in the local media at the time the scandal broke, and the story developed, it's hardly big news now. 

PUBLIC SANCTIONS
FY 2015

The following are public sanctions (reproduced in their entirety) which were issued by the Commission during fiscal year 2015. The public records for these cases are available for inspection at the Commission’s offices located at 300 W. 15th Street, Suite 145, Austin, Texas.

BEFORE THE
STATE COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL CONDUCT
CJC NOS. 14-0102-DI, 14-0165-DI, 14-0224-DI, 14-0403-DI,
14-0435-DI, 14-0468-DI, 14-0472-DI, 14-0473-DI, 14-0484-DI,
14-0508-DI, 14-0529-DI, 14-0654-DI&14-0655-DI
PUBLIC REPRIMAND
HONORABLE DENISE V. PRATT
FORMER JUDGE, 311TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT
HOUSTON, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS

During its meeting on August 13-15, 2014, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct concluded a review of the allegations against the Honorable Denise V. Pratt, Former Judge of the 311th Judicial District Court, Houston, and Harris County, Texas. Judge Pratt appeared before the Commission on August 14, 2014, and gave testimony.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Judge Pratt was elected to the 311th Judicial District Court bench in November 2010, and assumed the bench on January 1, 2011. Starting in October 2013, the Commission began receiving complaints filed by attorneys, litigants, and confidential sources alleging numerous incidents of misconduct against Judge Pratt, including malfeasance by backdating court orders and judgments, excessive and unreasonable delays in issuing decisions, a lack of diligence in attending to the business of the court, and incompetence in performing the duties of office. Many of the matters raised in the complaints became the subject of extensive local media attention in the Houston area. In particular, it was disclosed in the press that allegations contained in the complaint of attorney Greg Enos had become the subject of a criminal investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office into the conduct of Judge Pratt.

In Enos’ criminal complaint, Judge Pratt was accused of backdating court orders and renditions in order to cover up for the lengthy delays in her rulings in contested family law cases. It was alleged that Judge Pratt backdated the orders to make it appear that she had issued rulings sooner than she actually did and that the judge was assisted by court staff, who rolled back the clerk’s date stamp, then initialed and filed backdated orders knowing that Judge Pratt had not signed the documents on the dates she claimed. Enos provided examples in six cases of orders or renditions that appeared to have been signed by Judge Pratt months earlier but that were not filed or provided to the parties or their attorneys until much later and well after the time to appeal had expired. According to media reports, Judge Pratt’s lead clerk, Marilyn Epps, who had twenty-five years of experience as a Harris County court clerk, resigned following an investigation by the Harris County District Clerk’s office into the backdating allegations after admitting to one instance of rolling back her date stamp to match what Judge Pratt had written as the date she purportedly signed the rendition. However, there appeared to be no evidence to support a finding that Epps engaged in this conduct at Judge Pratt’s request, direction, or instruction. In December 2013, a grand jury investigating Enos’ complaint against Judge Pratt declined to indict the judge. During this time, Judge Pratt filed to run for re-election and became one of four candidates vying for election to the 311th District Court in the March 2014 Republican Primary.

In January 2014, additional complaints were filed with the Commission after Judge Pratt issued dismissal orders disposing of more than approximately 600 pending cases on December 30-31, 2013. According to the complaints, without notice to the parties or their attorneys or an opportunity to be heard, cases were dismissed for want of prosecution even though a substantial number of the cases had recent activity; were awaiting the judge’s signature on orders following trial, mediation, or arbitration; were set for trial in 2014; or had already been transferred to other courts following Judge Pratt’s recusal. Enos filed a second criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s office concerning the en mass dismissals alleging that Judge Pratt illegally purged her docket on the last two days of 2013 to cover up the growing backlog caused by her failure or inability to timely handle the business of the court.

Although Judge Pratt received the most votes in the March 2014 Republican Primary, she did not receive at least 50% of the votes and her name was placed on the ballot for the May 2014 Republican Primary Run-off election. However, on March 28, 2014, after Enos filed a third criminal complaint against her with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Judge Pratt sent a letter to the Governor of Texas announcing that she was immediately resigning from office. Despite her resignation, Judge Pratt’s name remained on the ballot for the May 2014 runoff election, which she lost.

In August 2014, the Commission concluded its investigation into the allegations filed against Judge Pratt. After considering the evidence before it, the Commission entered the following Findings and Conclusions.

Harris County Family Law Center 
FINDINGS OF FACT

1. At all times relevant hereto, the Honorable Denise V. Pratt was Judge of the 311th
Judicial District Court in Houston, Harris County, Texas.

DELAYS IN RULING

The Bates Case

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Who dissents the most on the Houston Courts of Appeals?


How common are dissenting and concurring opinions on the Houston Courts of Appeals?
 
Systematic information both on disposition patterns and opinion production of individual justices is available from the Office of Court Administration. The Houston Courts of Appeals stand out once more, according to statistics published in the most recent Annual Report for the Texas Judiciary, which was released in January.

Kem Thompson Frost continued to distinguish herself as the most independent mind on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals; with a total 30 dissents and concurrences in Fiscal Year ending August 31, 2013. Eighteen of these opinions were dissenting opinions, out of a total 161 written by this jurist, who has since succeeded Adele Hedges as chief justice.

None of her peers on the court wrote more than five separate opinions in the same time period. With the exception of Justice John Donovan, who joined the 14th Court of Appeals on January 1, 2013 (during the fiscal year) replacing Justice Seymore (who did not seek re-election), each member of the court wrote at least one concurring or dissenting opinion. The highest total number was five each for Justices Sharon McCally and Tracy Christopher, and the same number authored by Chief Justice Adele Hedges.  The number of separate opinions by Frost is exceptional in statewide comparison of opinions issued by the members of the fourteen intermediate courts of appeals likewise. 

The First Court of Appeals, which also sits in Houston and hears appeals from the same collection of surrounding counties, has one member with an independent streak likewise: Justice Evelyn Keyes, who wrote 12 dissenting opinions, 2 concurrences, and 1 separate opinion concurring and dissenting in part, for a total of 15 separate opinions for the fiscal year.

Justice Keyes thus contributed almost 40% of the 38 separate opinions produced by her court, which, like the Fourteenth and the Supreme Court of Texas, consists of nine members and is housed in the old Harris County Courthouse which was restored to its former splendor a few years ago. But thanks to Frost, the tally of separate opinions issued by the sister court was higher: 58.

1910 Harris County Courthouse - View from new Civil Courthouse

The First Court has one member who is not a Republican, Jim Sharp, who is facing re-election this year, with three Republican primary contenders vying for the privilege of taking on the lone Democratic incumbent in November: Dan Linebaugh (R), Chad Bridges (R), and Russell Lloyd (R). Sharp authored six dissents, and two other separate opinions, for a total of eight, thus taking second place behind Keyes, followed by Justice Harvey Brown with a total of six. At the other end of the spectrum, Justice Laura Higley did not pen any dissents or concurrences at all, and Justices Jane Bland and Chief Sherry Radack only did so one time each over the course of the fiscal year.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals continues to utilize the services of a retired justice: Hon. Margaret Mirabal, who authored 21 opinions on the merits, one concurrence, and two dissents, for a total of 40 opinions. The First Court, by contrast, had no opinions written by a former justice in FY 2012-13; nor any by a district judge sitting on a case by assignment for that matter. 

The annual opinion output for individual members of two appellate bodies ranges between 110 and 170, with lower totals for those who did not serve on the court for the entire fiscal year (Justices Seymore and Donovan). The total annual output per court is approximately 1200 each.
The official statistics break it down into published and unpublished opinions, but that distinction is not particularly meaningful because all opinions are "published" on the court's website, and even so-called "unpublished" opinions are routinely cited in trial and appellate briefs, even if they do not constitute binding authority. That said, they are cited less often compared to "published" opinions because of their lesser status.
Published means the opinion is included in the Southwestern Reporter, and gets a citable identifier that includes "S.W.3d" with volume number preceding it and page number following it, in addition to the a reference to the court that issued it and the year. Unpublished opinions are cited by Westlaw (WL) or Lexis-Nexis number. Sometimes the URL for the court's pdf version is provided as reference. All appellate opinions are now published in pdf on the courts' websites, with the benefit that the pagination is consistent. This was not the case when HTML versions were available and needed to be copied into a Word, WordPerfect, or similar word-processing file, which oftentimes garbled up or otherwise produced ugly alterations in the page set-up and formatting, assuming it the web version was even acceptable for viewing in various browsers to begin with.

Question addressed: Who are the most active dissenters on the First and Fourteenth Court of Appeals? Level of disagreement of members of appellate courts in Texas, as shown in concurring and dissenting opinions.
Links to: Texas Office of Court Administration and Annual Report on the Texas Judiciary  


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Attorney faces disciplinary action over barratry; use of non-lawyer associate to bring in new clients and cases


The State Bar of Texas, through its Commission for Lawyer Discipline, yesterday (Feb 12, 2014) filed a petition with the Harris County District Clerk seeking imposition of disciplinary sanctions against Attorney Ronald Eugene Reynolds by a state district court judge.

The Commission, in a pleading signed by Alison K. Elam, Assistant Disciplinary Counsel of the State Bar, with office address in Houston, recites multiple instances of Attorney Reynolds relying on a named non-lawyer assistant or associate to recruit clients following car accidents for legal representation. The Commission alleges that this was an ongoing pattern of solicitation on Reynold's behalf, and that the attorney, referred to as "Respondent" in the pleading, paid or offered to pay the nonlawyer for his efforts, which were successful in a number of instances.  




The disciplinary petition mentions barratry, but only as one basis for disciplinary action among others. This is presumably because the Commission's role and jurisdiction involves the enforcement of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct that governs attorney behavior and practice of law, and not the enforcement of civil or criminal law on the offense of illegal solicitation of employment by attorneys for financial gain. The disciplinary petition does not employ the commonly used nonlegal terms for prohibited barratry: case running or ambulance chasing. Nor does it expressly cite the barratry statutes. 




In the concluding paragraph of the 7-page petition, which is captioned "PRAYER" as is typical for pleadings in Texas state courts, the Commission asks that the Court discipline Reynolds by reprimand, suspension or disbarment "as the facts shall warrant", and to order restitution.

Disbarment is the ultimate penalty. Suspensions vary in time, and may ordered to be actively served (meaning that the sanctioned attorney may not practice law for that time period) and/or probated or probated in part.  

According to his State Bar profile, Ronald Reynolds' law firm affiliation is with BROWN, BROWN & REYNOLDS, P.C.. He practices primarily in the field of personal injury and labor and employment litigation. The commission's pleading do not state that Reynolds used the nonlawyer associate to solicit individuals involved in automobile accidents to represent them as plaintiffs in lawsuit seeking personal injury and/or other damages (rather than to assist them as civil or criminal defendants), but that seems likely. 

The case against Reynolds has been assigned to the 270th District Court, which is presided over by Judge Brent Gamble, a long-serving Republican jurist. Harris County District Court benches are populated by a mix of Democrats and Republicans. But case assignments to those courts are random, to avoid forum/judge-shopping. The same is true of cases filed in county civil courts at law. 

Reynolds is a state Legislator. He represent House District 27 (Missouri City / part of Fort Bend County)






Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Harris County Family Law Center (photo of building and plaza)


Harris County Family Law Center - Landscpaped Plaza facing North side of
1910 Courthouse (not shown) with Historical Marker