Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Who dissents the most in Houston?

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, 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 served 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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jury Plaza and Building - Harris County - Downtown Houston

Harris County Courthouse Square

Criminal Justice Center (criminal courts) seen from Jury Plaza
Harris County Civil Courthouse on Caroline
Harris County Civil Courthouse and multi-level parking garage seen from the East

Monday, July 15, 2013

Harris County 1910 Courthouse (photos after restoration and historical marker)

Dome of 1910 Harris County Courthouse

Old Courthouse seen from steps of new Civil Courthouse
with Downtown Ofice Towers: Chase Tower, BofA Center, Calpine Center

View of courthouse from intersection of Fannin and Congress Ave

Harris County 1910 Courthouse, now the seat of two Court of Appeals
301 Fannin St, Houston, TX 77002

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Harris County Civil Courthouse: District Courts (Civil Division), County Civil Courts at Law, and Probate Courts; and Photo of Jury Plaza

The above is a true photo of the modern Harris County Courthouse (taken with zoom lens from a couple of blocks West). Compare that to what appears on the county clerk's webpage for one of the County Civil Court at Law judges:

It's apparently an architect's (or artist's) rendering that did not make the cut, -- or win the design competition.

The home page of the Harris County District Courts likewise presents a vision of the courthouse plaza that remained in the design phase.

The Harris County Civil Courthouse was not built the way it's shown on the official website, and the jury plaza apparently had to go without the lone star too; not to mention that that glass-and-steel structure with the curved roof now sits on the South end of the Plaza.

Here is a link to several more photos that show what the new Harris County Jury Assembly facility actually looks like (most of it is not visible because it is underground). There is landscaping at street level, i.e. on the jury plaza above the facility, but no huge Lone State Star, blue or otherwise. A more modest single star was placed at the top of the high-rise courthouse on the West side, where the main entrance is.
This is how this state-of-the-art high-rise courthouse, which has become an eye-pleasing enhancement of the Downtown Houston skyline, looks from the South:

Harris County Civil Courthouse - South Side
Criminal Courts Building on the left (partial view)
And, for good measure, here is a view of the civil and criminal courts buildings from the East - Multi-level parking garage (with underground tunnel access to the courthouse) and street-level parking lots in foreground. 


Source: Courts' website (click this link to check for updates and to use the hotlinks to judge-specific pages and other official court-related information). The above is just a screenshot image.