Embattled family court Judge Denise Pratt is the subject of another criminal complaint by Webster family lawyer Greg Enos, accusing her of breaking the law by signing orders saying she had given prior notice to lawyers before dismissing hundreds of cases last month.
Judges are required under rules of civil procedure to schedule hearings and warn parties involved in pending litigation of their intent to dismiss cases, but numerous lawyers, including Enos, have told the Houston Chronicle they learned their cases had been dismissed only after the fact. The 311th District Court judge’s surprise docket purge – more than 700 cases since Dec. 19 – has sparked a furor at the Harris County Family Courthouse as lawyers and their clients fret over now-nullified custody arrangements, child support payments and the fate of cases on which Pratt already had ruled and needed to make final that were abruptly dissolved by the mass dismissal.
In addition to Enos’ complaint to the Harris County District Attorney’s office, several Houston family lawyers said they are filing complaints this week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct amid calls from some for Pratt to resign and withdraw from the March 4 GOP primary.
In his complaint to the District Attorney’s Office, Enos alleges that by signing orders to dismiss those cases, Pratt violated a section of the state penal code that makes it a crime to knowingly make a false entry in a government record.
“The truth is that none of these parties were given notice that their case would be dismissed on Dec. 30 or 31,” Enos wrote.
A docket for cases set to be dismissed for want of prosecution, he wrote, “takes up at least half a day and usually involves dozens and dozens of attorneys in the courtroom with motions to retain. Pratt knew that no one was in her court for a dismissal docket on those days.”
Attached to Enos’ complaint were dismissal orders that Pratt had signed, stating that “all parties were given notice of the setting date and that failure to appear would be grounds for dismissal.”
See here for the most recent entry in this saga, which has taken a turn for the bizarre. Pratt’s lawyer, who is definitely earning his hourly rate, insists that this ain’t no big thing.
Pratt, through her lawyer, has acknowledged that some notices of pending dismissals were not sent out but has blamed the problem on a new state-run computer system being used by the district clerk’s office.
District clerk’s spokesman Bill Murphy said that system, known as eFileTexas.gov system, has nothing to do with the mailing of notices of dismissal hearings.
Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said it is commonplace for judges to purge their dockets at the end of the year and called Enos’ complaint “wholly and utterly without merit.”
“Greg Enos is like the boy who cried wolf, and he’s become a political alarmist,” Yates said. “The fact that he released this quote, I’ll put it in quotes, ‘criminal complaint’ to the media on the same day he filed it with the DA’s office shows his true motivation.”
Enos’ complaint was the second he has lodged with the District Attorney’s Office in regard to Pratt. Last October, he accused the Republican judge of backdating court orders to make it appear she had performed duties months before she actually had in several cases. That led to the resignation of Pratt’s lead clerk and sparked an investigation by the District Attorney’s Office and a grand jury.
Pratt, through Yates, has blamed the backdating on her clerks, who are employed by the district clerk’s office.
Yates noted Thursday that rules of civil procedure specifically require that the clerk send notice of the court’s intention to dismiss and the date and place of the dismissal hearing, and stipulate what should be done when notice is not given.
Murphy, the district clerk’s spokesman, said in an email that court coordinators – not clerks – are responsible for mailing notices of upcoming dismissal hearings. Coordinators, he noted, are employed by the county Office of Court Administration but “hand-picked by the judges for whom they work.”
If what Yates is saying is true, then it ought to be easily confirmed. How many cases were dismissed at the end of the year by other Harris County Family Court judges? Let’s check the same thing in some other big counties, too – Dallas, Bexar, wherever else District Family Courts exist. Check 2012 and 2011 and 2010, too – surely this data all exists. If Yates is correct, then the number of cases Judge Pratt dismissed will fit right in with those of her peers’ courts. If he’s wrong, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Empirical claims like this should always be checked. I’d do it if I knew where to look. Surely someone at the Chron, or someone reading this, has that capability. Houston Politics has more.
UPDATE: Turns out the answer to my question was at the end of the story, but I missed it:
According to records, Pratt dismissed 561 cases for want of prosecution in December. The eight other Harris County family courts dismissed from 28 to 121 cases each.
As they say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. Got another explanation, Mr. Yates?