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. 

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:
Some of the findings on Sharp's verbal abuse of county employees 
The case of Justice Jim Sharp - Now judicial ethics continuing education material 

https://static.ark.org/eeuploads/ag/GOOD_LESSONS_FROM_BAD_JUDGES_AG_2014_Materials.pdf

LINKS on JUSTICE SHARP'S SELF-INFLICTED BAD PRESS:


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

2. Kevin Bates and Melissa Bates were divorced in July 2010.
3. In the Agreed Final Decree of Divorce, Kevin was awarded a modified possession order
regarding the couple’s three children.
4. On March 2, 2012, Kevin filed a Motion for Enforcement of Possession or Access,
alleging that Melissa interfered with his right to access and visitation regarding his 17
year-old daughter.
5. Melissa had also filed motions for enforcement against Kevin. Both Kevin’s and
Melissa’s enforcement motions were scheduled to be heard on June 28, 2012.
6. On June 28, 2012, Judge Pratt presided over a hearing concerning Kevin’s enforcement
motion, but did not conduct a hearing on Melissa’s pending motions.
7. At the conclusion of the hearing on Kevin’s motion, Judge Pratt stated that she would
reserve her ruling until Melissa’s motions for enforcement were heard at a later date;
however, no hearings were ever held on Melissa’s motions for enforcement.
8. On January 15, 2013, Kevin filed a Motion for Ruling and/or Judgment on his motion for
enforcement.
9. On February 6, 2013, the amicus attorney appointed to the Bates Case filed a response to
Kevin’s motion.
10. Kevin’s motion was set for a hearing on February 12, 2013 and again on February 28,
2013, but no hearings were conducted because Judge Pratt failed to appear on either of
those dates.
11. In April 2013, Kevin filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus to the 14th Court of Appeals
seeking to have that Court compel Judge Pratt to issue a ruling on his still pending
motion for enforcement.
12. On May 14, 2013, the 14th Court of Appeals issued an opinion conditionally granting the
writ of mandamus and directing Judge Pratt to rule on Kevin’s motion for enforcement
within fifteen days.
13. In its opinion, the 14th Court of Appeals noted the importance of prompt rulings in cases
concerning parental rights and the best interests of children and concluded that the delay
in the Bates Case was unreasonable. The Court went on to state:
In suits involving the parent-child relationship, “[j]ustice demands a speedy resolution,” and mandamus
may issue “to protect the rights of parents and children.” We hold that respondent has abused her discretion
in failing to timely render a decision on relator’s pending motion for enforcement of his right to possession
and access to his child.
14. On May 15, 2013, a document entitled, “Judge’s Rendition” was faxed to the attorneys in
the Bates Case from Judge Pratt’s court. The document was not date stamped by a clerk,
nor was it imaged or entered in the court’s computer docket.
15. The document, dated August 1, 2012, was written entirely in Judge Pratt’s handwriting
and contained Judge Pratt’s handwritten ruling granting Kevin’s motion for enforcement.
16. According to the rendition, Melissa had been found in contempt of court following the
June 28, 2012 enforcement hearing for denying visitation to Kevin and was ordered to
spend 180 days in jail unless she paid Kevin’s attorney’s fees and no longer interfered
with his right to access and visitation.
17. There was no mention in the rendition that Melissa’s motions for enforcement had been
considered or resolved by Judge Pratt prior to issuing her decision.
18. Although none of the attorneys or litigants received a copy of the August 1, 2012
rendition prior to May 15, 2013, Judge Pratt testified before the Commission that she
issued her ruling and prepared the rendition or about August 1, 2012.
19. Judge Pratt also testified that in response to the 14th Court of Appeal’s ruling, Deborah
Selden, the senior staff attorney for the Administrative Office of the Harris County
District Courts, sent a letter to the Court on behalf of Judge Pratt representing that Judge
Pratt had issued the court’s rendition in the Bates Case on August 1, 2012, and had
signed an Order of Enforcement on May 21, 2013.
20. However, Judge Pratt provided no explanation as to why Selden’s letter came after the
Court’s ruling and why it had not been sent in the weeks following the April 2013 filing
of the Petition for Writ of Mandamus.
21. Additionally, Selden’s letter to the Court contained no explanation as to why the August
1, 2012 rendition had not been filed or served on the parties or their attorneys until May
15, 2013.
22. In her testimony before the Commission, however, Judge Pratt stated that on or about
August 1, 2012, she gave the signed rendition to a court clerk, who was supposed to file
it and forward a copy to the attorneys; however, according to Judge Pratt, the clerk failed
to file the rendition or provide a copy to the attorneys. Additionally, the judge contended
that court staff failed to notify her of Kevin’s subsequent efforts to obtain a ruling in the
matter.

The DuPont Case

23. Judge Pratt presided over a divorce trial in the DuPont Case on February 4, 6, and 7,
2013. Judge Pratt did not immediately issue a ruling, announcing that she was taking the
matter under advisement.
24. Throughout March 2013 and April 2013, the attorney representing Sandra DuPont began
regularly communicating with Judge Pratt’s court coordinator in an attempt to learn when
Judge Pratt would be making her ruling in the case.
25. On May 15, 2013, Judge Pratt faxed a copy of a handwritten rendition, dated February
15, 2013, to Sandra’s attorney.
26. The copy received by Sandra’s attorney was not a file-stamped copy; however, the
rendition that was imaged by the district clerk’s office on or after May 15, 2013, showed
a clerk’s date stamp of February 15, 2013.
27. The February 15, 2013 date stamp included the initials “ME,” indicating that it had been
stamped by Marilyn Epps; however, according to Judge Pratt’s testimony, Epps did not
start working in her court until April 24, 2013.
28. Therefore, Epps could not have stamped the document on February 15th as indicated by
the initials beside the date stamp.
29. In her testimony before the Commission, Judge Pratt denied that she instructed Epps to
roll back the clerk’s date stamp on the rendition in the DuPont Case to match the date of
the judge’s signature.
30. Judge Pratt testified that she signed the rendition on February 15th, and instructed court
staff to file it and forward a copy to the attorneys of record; however, according to the
judge’s testimony, court staff failed to do so and failed to advise her of the parties’
subsequent efforts to obtain a ruling.

The Hernandez-Rivera Case

31. On January 30 – 31, 2013, Judge Pratt presided over a hearing in the Hernandez-Rivera
Case, which was pending in the 310th District Court; however, Judge Lisa Millard, the
judge of the 310th District Court, was unavailable to hear the matter at that time.
32. At the conclusion of the hearing on January 31, 2013, Judge Pratt announced that she was
taking the matter under advisement.
33. Thereafter, on an almost weekly basis, the attorney for Aaron Hernandez contacted Judge
Pratt’s court staff to find out if a ruling had been made. Each time he spoke to court staff,
the attorney was told that Judge Pratt had not yet ruled.
34. On April 9, 2013, Aaron’s attorney filed a Motion for Status Conference, which was set
to be heard on April 18, 2013; however, Judge Pratt failed to appear for the hearing.
35. On May 24, 2013, the attorneys in the Hernandez-Rivera Case received a handwritten
rendition from Judge Pratt dated January 30, 2013.
36. Although the rendition was not provided to the parties or entered into the computer
docket until May 24, 2013, the document that was imaged by the District Clerk’s office
was date-stamped January 30th; however, there were no initials placed beside the date
stamp indicating the identity of the clerk who processed the document.2
37. In July 2013, as a result of the nearly four month delay in receiving notice of Judge
Pratt’s ruling, and other substantive conflicts within the order itself, Judge Millard
granted a new trial in the case.
38. In her testimony before the Commission, Judge Pratt stated that she signed the rendition
in the Hernandez-Rivera Case after the hearing concluded on January 31, 2013; however,
because she had not changed the date on her calendar from the previous day, she
mistakenly stamped January 30th instead of January 31st as the date of entry.
39. No explanation was provided as to why the clerk’s stamp also erroneously reflected
January 30, 2013, or why the parties did not receive a copy of the rendition until May 24,
2013; however, Judge Pratt testified before the Commission that any delays in filing her
rendition or providing a copy to the parties would have been the result of court clerk
errors and incompetence.
2 Marilyn Epps, who was Judge Pratt’s lead clerk starting on April 24, 2013, would have been the person
responsible for processing the judge’s signed orders and renditions from that point forward.

The Messier Case

40. Luc and Katy Messier were granted a divorce in February 2011, which was appealed by
Katy.
41. While the Messier Case was on appeal, Judge Pratt presided over several hearings
involving various post-trial motions.
42. On June 26, 2012, Judge Pratt held a hearing on Katy’s motion for judgment nunc pro
tunc, but did not issue a ruling.
43. On December 19, 2012, Judge Pratt presided over an enforcement motion hearing after
which she did issue an oral ruling from the bench, but did not reduce that ruling to
writing indicating that the attorneys were to prepare proposed orders for her signature.
44. On March 25, 2013, the attorneys appeared in court for a hearing to enter orders
regarding the enforcement motion; however, after waiting for more than an hour, the
attorneys were advised by the court coordinator that Judge Pratt wanted the attorneys to
leave the courtroom and that she would consider the matter on submission. The attorneys
then left their proposed orders with the court coordinator for Judge Pratt to review.
45. Throughout March 2013 and April 2013, the attorneys for the Messiers continued to
contact Judge Pratt’s court coordinator asking if the judge had ruled.
46. During this time, the attorneys and the court coordinator inspected the court file, but only
found the unsigned proposed orders.
47. The court coordinator advised the attorneys that there was no ruling and they would be
notified as soon as one was issued.
48. In late May 2013, the attorneys received a handwritten rendition from Judge Pratt, dated
March 25, 2013, with the judge’s decision regarding the motion heard on June 26, 2012;
however, the rendition had been date-stamped by Epps on May 25, 2013.
49. On June 5, 2013, the attorneys learned for the first time that Judge Pratt had signed the
proposed order submitted by Katy’s attorney, which was dated March 25, 2013.
50. The enforcement order purportedly was date-stamped and initialed by Epps on March 25,
2013, even though Epps did not start working in Judge Pratt’s court until April 24, 2013.
51. The enforcement order was not entered into the computer docket by the District Clerk’s
office until June 4, 2013.
52. Because the attorneys did not receive notice of the March 25, 2013 judgment until June
5, 2013, Judge Pratt granted Luc Messier’s motion to extend the post-judgment deadlines
so that an appeal could be perfected.
53. On June 24, 2013, and again on July 18, 2013, Luc’s appellate attorney requested that
Judge Pratt issue findings of fact and conclusions of law in connection with the appeal.
54. On August 1, 2013, Katy’s attorney filed proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of
Law in the Messier Case.
55. On August 29, 2013, Luc’s appellate attorney filed a motion to abate the appeal due to
the failure of Judge Pratt to issue the requested findings of fact and conclusions of law.
56. On September 12, 2013, the 14th Court of Appeals abated the appeal and ordered Judge
Pratt to issue the requested findings of fact and conclusions of law.
57. The following day, Judge Pratt filed findings of fact and conclusions of law that were
dated August 18, 2013; however, according to the District Clerk’s computer docket entry,
the document, which was not date stamped by a clerk, was signed on September 13,
2013.4
58. In a letter dated September 19, 2013, sent directly to the 14th Court of Appeals, Judge
Pratt provided a chronology of events and confirmed that she signed the findings of fact
and conclusions of law on August 18, 2013, which the judge pointed out was before the
motion to abate was filed with the Court; however, no explanation was provided as to
why Judge Pratt waited to provide this information until after the Court ordered her to
issue the findings of fact.
59. On October 25, 2013, Luc’s trial counsel filed a motion to recuse Judge Pratt from
presiding over any other pending matters.
60. On February 27, 2014, a nine hour recusal hearing took place before a visiting judge.
Judge Pratt was ordered removed from the Messier Case a few weeks later.
61. In her testimony before the Commission, Judge Pratt attributed any delays in filing her
judgments, renditions, and findings of fact in the Messier Case to clerk errors and
incompetence.
62. In support of her testimony regarding the alleged incompetence of the various court
clerks assigned to her court, Judge Pratt provided the Commission with numerous emails
dated from late September 2013 through January 2014, in which she complained to
supervisors in the Harris County District Clerk’s Office about the unusually high
turnover rate of clerks assigned to her court, and that the clerks were not properly trained,
could not locate court files and court records, and were generally negligent and derelict in
their duties.
63. Judge Pratt provided no emails or records of other communications covering the period
from May 2013 through September 2013 expressing concerns about the delays in filing
orders, renditions, and findings of fact in the Bates, DuPont, Hernandez-Rivera, and
Messier Cases, which were all handled by her lead clerk, Epps.
64. In one email, however, Judge Pratt acknowledged that she was ultimately responsible for
the management and operations of the 311th District Court.
65. Witnesses who worked in the 311th District Court also confirmed that Judge Pratt was
often late to court or did not show up at all, frequently cancelled or failed to appear at
4 The District Clerk’s office later changed the computer docket entry to reflect that the document had been signed
on August 18, 2013. The delayed disclosure of the Findings of Fact negatively impacted Luc Messier’s rights to
object to the Findings or ask for supplemental or additional findings. It also potentially harmed his position in the
appeal; however, the 14th Court of Appeals granted his request to extend the deadlines due to the discrepancy
between the date of the Findings of Fact and the date of its receipt by the parties and their attorneys.
preferential settings and scheduled hearings, and delayed signing orders in cases for
months at a time. As a result, Judge Pratt had the highest backlog of pending cases than
any other Harris County Family District Court.
66. According to witnesses in the Harris County District Clerk’s Office, only experienced
employees were assigned to serve as lead clerks in Judge Pratt’s court and any delays in
processing Judge Pratt’s signed orders, renditions, and findings of fact were due to Judge
Pratt’s chronic failure to provide the documents to the clerks for processing.

DISMISSALS FOR WANT OF PROSECUTION

The Montgomery Case

67. On December 18, 2013, attorney Matthew Waldrop obtained an Order of Recusal
removing Judge Pratt from eight cases, including the Montgomery Case, in which he was
lead counsel.
68. On December 30, 2013, the Montgomery Case was assigned to Judge Sheri Dean in the
309th District Court.
69. Also on December 30, 2013, without notice or an opportunity to be heard, Judge Pratt
signed an order dismissing the Montgomery Case for want of prosecution.
70. On January 3, 2014, Judge Dean signed an order vacating and setting aside the dismissal
order as void, and the case was reinstated on the 309th District Court docket.
71. In her testimony before the Commission, Judge Pratt acknowledged signing the order of
dismissal in the Montgomery Case after she had been recused from the matter, but
claimed that she did so because she had been advised that this was the mechanism for
removing the case from the 311th District Court’s docket. Judge Pratt indicated that she
was not aware that her order actually dismissed the entire Montgomery Case.

The Canepa Case

72. On May 18, 2012, Tanya Sampson Canepa filed for divorce from her husband, Francisco
Javier Canepa.
73. After numerous delays, Judge Pratt conducted a trial on October 25, 2013.
74. After several hours of testimony, Judge Pratt recessed for the day and ordered the parties
to return to resume testimony on October 29, 2013.
75. On October 29, 2013, all parties, attorneys and witnesses appeared as ordered to resume
the trial only to learn that Judge Pratt had recused herself from the case.
76. Thereafter, the Canepa Case was assigned to the 257th District Court and a new trial date
was set for May 21, 2014.
77. On December 30, 2013, without notice or an opportunity to be heard, Judge Pratt signed
an order dismissing the Canepa Case for want of prosecution.
78. In her testimony before the Commission, Judge Pratt acknowledged signing the order of
dismissal in the Canepa Case after she had been recused from the matter, but claimed
that she did so because she had been advised that this was the mechanism for removing a
case from the 311th District Court’s docket. Judge Pratt indicated that she was not aware
that her order actually dismissed the entire Canepa Case.
79. The Canepa Case was reinstated on April 1, 2014.
80. On December 30-31, 2013, without notice or an opportunity to be heard, Judge Pratt
signed orders dismissing approximately 600 cases for want of prosecution.
81. Many of the cases had remained active on the court’s docket right up to the date of
dismissal.5 Some had already been tried or mediated and were simply awaiting Judge
Pratt’s signature on the final orders; others were set for trial in 2014; and some had
already been transferred to other courts following Judge Pratt’s recusal as described
above.
82. In addition to the cases described above, one of the active cases dismissed by Judge Pratt
for want of prosecution was the Corvera Case, which had been tried in Associate Judge
Robert Newey’s court on December 18, 2013.
83. During the trial, Judge Newey determined that an amicus attorney needed to be appointed
per court policy because issues of child custody had been raised.
84. Judge Newey recessed the trial and ordered the attorneys to prepare an order for the
appointment of an amicus attorney and obtain a new trial date from the court coordinator.
85. That same day, the attorneys prepared an order for the amicus attorney appointment,
which required Judge Pratt’s signature, and secured a new trial date from the court
coordinator.
86. The attorneys then left the proposed order with the court clerk to be presented to Judge
Pratt for her signature and the selection of the amicus attorney.
87. Approximately one hour after leaving the courthouse on December 18, 2013, the
attorneys were notified by Judge Newey that Judge Pratt had dismissed the Corvera Case
for want of prosecution.
88. According to the attorneys in the Corvera Case, they received no notice and were
afforded no opportunity to be heard before Judge Pratt dismissed the case.
89. A motion to reinstate the Corvera Case was granted on January 14, 2014. Thereafter, in
March 2014, a motion to recuse was granted removing Judge Pratt from the case.
90. In the Heck Case, the parties reached an agreement through mediation in August 2013
and filed their agreed judgment with the 311th District Court on December 6, 2013.
91. On January 13, 2014, the parties filed a motion for hearing on the final orders.
92. A few weeks later, the parties were notified that Judge Pratt had signed an order
dismissing the Heck Case for want of prosecution on December 31, 2013.
93. On March 12, 2014, the Heck Case was reinstated following a motion by the parties.
5 According to media reports, Judge David Farr, the local presiding judge for the Harris County Family Law Courts,
told reporters that there were at least 260 active cases dismissed for want of prosecution by Judge Pratt in the last
days of 2013. Approximately 230 of these cases were reinstated before Judge Pratt resigned on March 28, 2014.
94. Shortly thereafter, another judge signed the agreed order that had been submitted to
Judge Pratt on December 6, 2013.
95. The parties in the Copeland Case began arbitration on October 29, 2013. The arbitration
concluded on December 10, 2013, and the arbitrator issued the Arbitration Decision and
Award on December 20, 2013.
96. On December 23, 2013, one of the attorneys in the Copeland Case filed an Application to
Confirm Arbitration and Award in the 311th District Court.
97. On December 30, 2013, while the Application was pending with the court, Judge Pratt
signed an order dismissing the Copeland case for want of prosecution.
98. On January 14, 2014, the Copeland Case was reinstated upon motion by the parties.
99. According to an attorney with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services
(“CPS”), who prosecuted CPS cases assigned to the 311th District Court, Judge Pratt
dismissed approximately thirty (30) CPS cases for want of prosecution on December 30-
31, 2013. CPS attorneys received no notice and no opportunity to be heard regarding the
dismissal of any of these cases.
100. According to witnesses, Judge Pratt’s dismissal of hundreds of active cases on December
30-31, 2013, required other judges and their staff to expend considerable time and
resources, at taxpayers’ expense, to locate signed orders that had not been provided to
clerks for processing and motions to reinstate that had been filed electronically but not
handled by Judge Pratt before she left office. They also tried to notify affected parties
who may not have received notice that their cases had been dismissed and attempted to
reinstate cases before the courts lost jurisdiction.
101. Witnesses also stated that Judge Pratt’s dismissal of active cases created emotional and
financial hardships for many parties. In numerous cases, parties incurred the additional
expense of having their attorneys prepare motions to reinstate and appear in court to have
their motions heard. In some cases, parties took advantage of the dismissals by depleting
community assets and forcing themselves back into the marital home.
102. Witnesses raised concerns that parties who were not represented by attorneys would be
particularly disadvantaged if they did not receive notice of the dismissal of their cases,
did not know how to have their cases reinstated, or missed the deadline for requesting
reinstatement.
103. Witnesses also reported that in at least one case, Judge Pratt signed an order dismissing
the case and signed a final judgment in the case on the same date, forcing the parties to
resolve the conflict in court at their own expense.
104. When asked to describe the process used to determine which cases to dismiss for want of
prosecution, Judge Pratt testified that she had instructed court staff to provide her with a
list of cases that were a year old or older.
105. Judge Pratt testified that she checked the status of some, but not all, of the cases, and
relied on her memory in eliminating some active cases from the list.
106. Ultimately, Judge Pratt signed orders of dismissal in approximately 600 cases based on
the list provided to her by court staff.
107. Judge Pratt acknowledged that parties and/or their attorneys were not provided with a
separate notice of the court’s intent to dismiss; however, she maintained that, in the
months leading up to the signing of the dismissal orders, a notice of trial setting had been
sent out to the parties or their attorneys in every case.
108. Judge Pratt went on to explain that the front and back of the notice of trial setting
contained a warning that the case was subject to dismissal if certain conditions were not
met. The notices also stated that cases pending more than 5 months without a trial setting
would be set for a dismissal for want of prosecution (“DWOP”) hearing.
109. Judge Pratt also represented that she held numerous DWOP hearings throughout the last
five months of 2013, and that she simply waited until December 30-31, 2013 to sign the
stack of dismissal orders provided to her by court staff, who assured her that DWOP
notices had gone out as required.
110. A review of several dismissal orders provided to the Commission indicated that none of
the orders included the date of the DWOP hearing, which was left blank.

RELEVANT STANDARDS

1. Article V, §1-a(6)A of the Texas Constitution provides that any judge may be disciplined for willful or persistent violation of the rules promulgated by the Supreme Court of Texas, willful violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, incompetence in performing the duties of office, or willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties or casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice.
2. Section 33.001(b) of the Texas Government Code, provides that a willful, persistent, and unjustifiable failure to timely execute the business of the court constitutes “willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of the judge’s duties.”
3. Canon 2A of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that, “A judge shall comply with the law…”
4. Canon 3B(2) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that, “A judge shall maintain professional competence in [the law].”
5. Canon 3B(8) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that, “A judge shall accord to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or that person's lawyer, the right to be heard according to law.”
7. Rule 165a of the Texas Code of Civil Procedure provides that before a case can be dismissed for want of prosecution, “notice of the court’s intention to dismiss and the date and place of the dismissal hearing shall be sent by the clerk to each attorney of record, and to each party not represented by an attorney…”

CONCLUSIONS

The Commission concludes from the evidence presented that Judge Pratt failed to be diligent and failed to timely execute the business of the court in violation of Article V, section 1-a(6)A of the Texas Constitution. Specifically, with regard to the delays in the Bates, DuPont, Hernandez-Rivera, and Messier Cases, although it is possible that Judge Pratt signed the various renditions, orders, and findings of fact on the dates noted beside her signature, the probability that this occurred appears remote given the totality of the circumstances. Judge Pratt’s reputation for not showing up for court, not signing orders for months at a time, not disposing of cases in a timely manner, and having the largest backlog of pending cases of all the Harris County Family District Courts was supported by witnesses who appeared in the 311th District Court or worked with the judge on a regular basis and supports the conclusion that Judge Pratt simply failed to sign orders, renditions, and findings of fact in a timely manner. Compounding the problem was the fact that when the delays were initially brought to her attention, Judge Pratt took no action; however, when the 14th Court of Appeals became involved, Judge Pratt was suddenly able to produce the missing documents which she claimed to have signed months earlier.

The Commission does not accept Judge Pratt’s contention that incompetent and untrained clerks were responsible for the delays in processing her orders and providing them to the parties, especially given the fact that Marilyn Epps, the clerk responsible for handling the orders, renditions, and findings of fact in the Bates, DuPont, Hernandez-Rivera, and Messier Cases, was a well-trained clerk with twenty-five years of experience. The evidence provided to the Commission demonstrated that Epps could not have received orders dated January 30, 2013, February 15, 2013, or March 25, 2013, until after she started working in Judge Pratt’s court on April 24, 2013. As lead clerk, Epps would have processed the orders when she received them from Judge Pratt, which means that the judge was responsible for the delays. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that following the May 15, 2013 order from the 14th Court of Appeals, Judge Pratt took no steps to ensure that her decisions were timely processed and provided to theparties, and continued to delay the signing of orders. Based on the evidence before it, the Commission concludes that Judge Pratt did not issue the orders, renditions, and findings of fact in the Bates, DuPont, Hernandez-Rivera, and Messier Cases until the documents were finally provided to the parties. In light of this, the decisional delays in those cases were unreasonable and unjustified. The Commission notes that Judge Pratt provided no evidence that these cases involved particularly complex legal issues; however, it was evident that Judge Pratt was carrying a particularly heavy caseload, and a very large backlog, due to her own lack of diligence and neglect of her duties. Excluding the fact that Judge Pratt was frequently late to court and often missed or canceled court hearings and trials, there does not appear to be a legitimate justification for the pattern of delayed decision-making that occurred during the last years of Judge Pratt’s tenure on the bench. The Commission notes that the failure of a judge to promptly dispose of the business of
the court in the absence of a justifiable reason for the delay reflects adversely on the entire judicial system. Prompt disposition of cases is critical to the parties appearing in court,especially when vulnerable children are involved, and necessary to prevent backlogs that interfere with the administration of justice. A judge who fails to show up for court hearings, appears late to court, or delays making decisions and signing orders in cases involving the rights of parents and the best interests of children, causes harm and a great disservice to parties,lawyers, witnesses, jurors, and other judges. A judge’s unjustified decisional delays, tardiness, and absenteeism are harmful to the parties, damage the public’s respect for and trust in the judiciary, and cannot be condoned.

With regard to the dismissal of more than 600 cases on December 30-31, 2013, the evidence shows that in most if not all instances, DWOP notices had not been sent to the parties or their attorneys and that DWOP hearings had not been held in violation of Rule 165a of the Texas Code of Civil Procedure. It was also clear to the Commission that Judge Pratt failed to take appropriate measures to ensure that active cases awaiting trial or the judge’s signature on final orders were not included in the list of cases to be dismissed and that cases from which she had already been recused were not included on the list. Finally, if Judge Pratt’s explanation is credible for why she signed DWOP orders in the cases from which she had been recused, and that she did so only to close the cases out of her court’s docket and not with the intent to dismiss the entire case, then Judge Pratt demonstrated great incompetence in the performance of her duties. The Commission concludes that Judge Pratt’s conduct in dismissing active cases for want of prosecution, including cases from which she was recused, violated Canons 2A, 3B(2), and 3B(8) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct and Article V, section 1-a(6)A of the Texas Constitution.



***************************
In condemnation of the above-recited conduct that violated Article V, §1-a (6) A of the Texas Constitution, and Canons 2A, 3B (2), and 3B (8) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, it is the Commission’s decision to issue a PUBLIC REPRIMAND to the Honorable Denise V. Pratt, Former Judge of the 311th Judicial District Court, Houston, Harris County, Texas. Pursuant to the authority contained in Article V, §1-a (8) of the Texas Constitution, it is ordered that the actions described above be made the subject of a PUBLIC REPRIMAND by the Commission.

The Commission has taken this action in a continuing effort to protect public confidence in the judicial system and to assist the state’s judiciary in its efforts to embody the principles and values set forth in the Texas Constitution and the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct.

Issued this the 4th day of September 2014.

ORIGINAL SIGNED BY
__________________________________________
Honorable Steven L. Seider, Chair
State Commission on Judicial Conduct

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