When I was growing up in Bryan (which was a far smaller town in the 1970s than it is now), I was brought up under the belief that judges were the closest thing to nobility that a small Texas town had to offer. We only had one District Court Judge in Brazos County back then (compared to the whopping three, count ’em, THREE that Brazos has now), and he was a family friend. When our families socialized, Judge McDonald was treated with a little more reverence by us kids because of the fact that he was a judge.
[On a personal side note, Judge W.T. “Tommy” McDonald passed away this past year. He was a dear, sweet man who was always very kind to me growing up and he kept up with my legal career from law school on forward. He meant a lot to our family and he is very missed. He deserved all of the love and respect that he received.]
After 22 years of being a lawyer, I recognize that judges are a little more fallible than I was raised to believe. As any practicing lawyer can tell you, some judges are amazing and worthy of having a courthouse named after them. A good judge follows the law and the rules of evidence, regardless of how unpopular the results might be. Intelligence, bravery, humility and selflessness are hallmarks of being a good judge — even if the results get you unelected by a fickle electorate.
Not all judges live up to that standard. I don’t know a lawyer alive that couldn’t spend hours telling a story about a judge or two, or five, or ten, that he or she deemed to be crazy.
Judges are fallible just like the rest of us. They make right calls. They make wrong calls. Their very job description calls upon them to hear one case at a time and make rulings based on the law and evidence as it applies directly to that one case. By definition of the adversarial system, when two sides appear before a judge, one is likely to walk away from the experience feeling more disappointed than the other. Maybe that results in the judge being complained about, a ruling being appealed, or even a grievance being filed.
But while judges are certainly not perfect and are often criticized, I have never seen the level of animosity currently being leveled at the judiciary as a whole as I am seeing in Harris County right now. If it weren’t so incredibly misguided, it would be almost comical. For the past year, everyone from the District Attorney to the media to the Legislature has decided that the current batch of Criminal Court judges are apparently the single biggest cause of violent crime in the City of Houston.
These 22 District Court and 16 County Court Judges aren’t public officials trying to navigate an unprecedented pandemic crisis. They are obviously all crime bosses trying to cause chaos in the streets by steadfastly refusing to go to trial and just releasing bloodthirsty criminals into the street as an alternative, right? At a minimum, they’ve all shut down their courts and have refused to come to work, leading all of these violent offenders to be released on PR bonds so they could go kill again, haven’t they? Haven’t they stopped having trials because they are lazy or too scared to risk coronavirus? At least, that part is true, isn’t it?
That’s what we keep hearing if you watch the local news.
But the reality is that the behavior of the Judges during the Pandemic is actually quite the opposite. From the onset in the spring of 2020, the Judges had to step into the fray quickly and efficiently as they were called upon to balance public safety against the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes. It was a task that they had some level of familiarity with, having navigated a courthouse shut down due to Hurricane Harvey, but Hurricane Harvey would ultimately prove to be only a light dress rehearsal for the full-fledged crisis that Covid-19 has proven to be.
While the majority of defense attorneys and prosecutors shifted to Zoom appearances as quickly as possible, the vast majority of the judges in Harris County were still going into their courtrooms in person. They had the option of designating their home addresses as temporary “courthouses” so that they too could Zoom from home, too, but unlike prosecutors and defense attorneys, those home addresses would have become publicly available. Not to mention, all of those defendants in custody were at the courthouse.
So, it’s kind of funny to me when I see posts like this one on Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s Facebook page: