Embattled family court judge Denise Pratt, under investigation again this year by the Harris County District Attorney’s office, was removed from five more cases on Thursday by a visiting senior judge who criticized the freshman jurist’s recent decision to make a final ruling in a child custody case without hearing any testimony or evidence.
“It’s pretty fundamental for judges that, in order to rule, you must hear evidence,” retired Harris County Civil Judge Sharolyn Wood said during a hearing at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. “I don’t know if that is due process under the Bill of Rights, but to me, it’s pretty durned important – OK? – that we in our system have judges that hear evidence before they rule.”
In the case in question, Pratt on Dec. 30 modified the terms of a temporary court order – to which both parties had agreed – without hearing any evidence, then finalized it by scratching out the word “temporary” with a pen and writing “final” above it. As a result, the case officially was closed and the 34-year-old mother effectively lost her right to visit her two children, something the opposing lawyer in the case acknowledged was not his client’s intention.
Houston lawyers Ed Chernoff and Anna Stool, who is representing the mother in the case, told Wood they recently had been interviewed by the district attorney’s office about the case as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into Pratt and expressed concerns about the impact that could have on her impartiality.
In a video on her campaign website, Pratt, who is running for re-election this year and will appear on the ballot in a May 10 runoff election, explains that “things are handled a little differently in the 311th court than any other family court. When someone files for divorce who has children and they request a temporary restraining order that orders that the parents not have their children around their girlfriend, boyfriend, lover or paramour from 10 p.m to 8 a.m., we changed that to read, ‘You are not to have your children around your girlfriend, boyfriend, lover or paramour at all.’ Not only are the parents still married, the children are not ready.”
Stool, though, said Thursday that she made it clear during a meeting last year with Chernoff and Pratt in the judge’s chambers that the mother and her fiancé were engaged and planning to marry soon, which they since have. The former federal prosecutor said barring the fiancé from seeing the children after that “implies terrible wrongdoing on my client’s part and on her now-husband’s part. So, now we have a husband that she lives with in a home where the two children can’t go.”
The runoff is May 27, not May 10 – that’s the date of the SD04 special election. I’ve noted this particular case before, and you can go here for the full Pratt experience. You lawyers out there – this isn’t normal, right? Surely Pratt is an outlier among judges. I have to believe that. Normally one would expect an incumbent that could only muster 30% in a multi-candidate primary would be in trouble for the runoff, but Pratt stil has plenty of establishment support, so who knows what will happen in May. Just remember that Democrat Sherri Cothrun will oppose whoever comes out of that race. One way or another, you’ve got a chance to vote Pratt out.