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A deeper dive into the Pratt files

The Chron takes a closer look at some of the people affected by the tenure of now-former Judge Denise Pratt.

Denise Pratt

Kevin Bates’ sojourn through Pratt’s court began in 2012, via a visitation dispute with his ex-wife over their 16-year-old daughter.

A court order in the couple’s divorce said the private pilot was supposed to pick up his three daughters on weekends. While the two younger sisters came to stay with Bates on weekends, his teenage daughter stayed at home with her mother. Bates, 43, let it slide for awhile, but after his oldest daughter missed a family gathering at his mother’s house, he hit a breaking point. In March 2012, he filed suit and landed back in the 311th District Court where the couple had settled their divorce a few years earlier and Pratt since had taken the bench.

Then, he waited.

For a year, he did not see his daughter while he waited for a ruling from Pratt, who missed several scheduled hearings. So much time passed that Bates eventually let his lawyer file a “writ of mandamus,” in effect, asking an appeals court to force Pratt to rule. A three-judge panel in the 14th Court of Appeals, in a ruling that came less than three weeks later, said the wait had been “unreasonable” and ordered Pratt to make a ruling within 15 days.

Bates soon learned he was not alone.

[...]

Bates eventually got a ruling in his favor, but he said that no longer is the point.

“She took something away from me I’ll never be able to get back,” he said. He no longer sees his daughter, who since has turned 18. He blames the estrangement on the year he lost to Pratt’s inaction.

In its May 14, 2013, opinion, the appeals court panel wrote that Pratt had “abused her discretion” in Bates’ case.

“A parent’s right to access to his child is a fundamental liberty interest more precious than property rights,” it wrote.

The swift ruling and rebuke were unusual enough, Bates’ lawyer, Marcia Zimmerman, said.

The resulting fax from Pratt’s court was even more so.

The paper ruling, in Pratt’s handwriting, was dated August 2012, nine months earlier. It ordered Bates’ ex-wife to surrender their daughter, pay him $2,500 in lawyer’s fees and serve probation until December 2012 – five months before.

“I looked at the date and the first thing that came to my mind was: There’s no way this judge signed this order on this date,” Zimmerman recalled.

That led to the first complaint filed against Pratt, from which all of my Pratt-related blogging flowed. As we know, she has now resigned from the bench but is still on the ballot in the May 27 runoff. From this story, it sounds like if she does manage to win the runoff she would withdraw from the race in November, but who knows what Denise Pratt will do? She hasn’t exactly been a model of rational behavior so far.

In Part 2 of this series, we get another look at just how badly effed up Pratt’s courtroom was.

Lawyers started dropping by Judge David Farr’s court about a year into Denise Pratt’s tenure, complaining they could not get the freshman jurist to hear or rule on cases and that the rulings – when they came – often were inappropriate.

Farr, the family court administrative judge, said he took the grievances with a grain of salt, reminding lawyers they could appeal or file complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Anger and disappointment, after all, are far from uncommon in the high-drama family courts where divorce, child support and custody battles range from amicable to poisonous.

In a dozen years of watching case load numbers, Farr said he had never seen one swell to more than 3,000 as Pratt’s had by last December, but he did not think he had “the power to reach into another court and second guess, move cases around.”

[...]

“We all knew we had a problem when she did not appear in court at all for the first 10 days after she was sworn in,” said Webster family lawyer Greg Enos, who filed three complaints against Pratt with the Harris County District Attorney’s office that sparked investigations. “Usually, judges are sworn in and are very eager to put the robe on and take control of their courtroom.”

In the weeks leading up to Pratt’s departure, Harris County Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said he was trying to figure out how – and if – he could intervene in her 311th District court.

“There was a time in like February or March when I did start thinking about seeing what there was I could do, if anything, on this,” the civil district court judge said. “As you know, things were not getting done in that court.”

Schaffer had been in regular contact with Farr about Pratt and her court, particularly after the notorious December case purge. Even when it was clear there were serious problems, Schaffer said he was unsure he had the authority to step in.

State law gives county-wide administrative judges general authority to “supervise the expeditious movement of court caseloads.”

Schaffer, though, said the law is not as clear as it could be, and that “traditionally, the local administrative judge has not inserted him or herself into the operations of other courts. I really feel like the Legislature has not given us much guidance on specifically what we can and cannot do.”

That is not the case in other states, said South Texas College of Law Dean Emeritus James Alfini.

Texas, he said, has a culture of giving independently elected judges free reign with little or no oversight or willingness to crack down on rogue actors.

“We have a very loosely administered court system,” he said.

Farr said a national consultant the county hired to study the local court system has been puzzled by his lack of power.

“There are states where the administrative judges can say, ‘You have too many cases. I’m moving 500 of your cases over to this court,’ but not Texas. That’s not how we do things here,” he said.

Asked whether he could have or ever considered intervening in Pratt’s court, Judge Olen Underwood – the regional administrative judge, who oversees courts in more than 30 counties, said “I’m not aware of any authority I have to do that.”

“We have the judicial conduct commission to do those kinds of things,” he said.

Yes, well, as anyone who followed the Sharon Keller affair from a couple of years back knows, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct isn’t exactly a fearsome beast. Bad judges either eventually get voted out, or the screw up big enough to make resigning or retiring look good. This leads the article into yet another discussion of Texas’ partisan election model for choosing judges and another commercial for either non-partisan elections or some kind of appointment-with-retention-elections system. Personally, I think having the Legislature spell out in more detail what the administrative judges can and cannot do, and maybe giving them the authority to reassign cases under certain circumstances would have helped mitigate the worst of Pratt’s offenses. Maybe that issue will have some salience in the 2015 legislative session, now that everyone is aware of the giant mess Denise Pratt is leaving behind for others to clean up. If that happens, then at least one good thing will come out of her three-plus years on the bench.

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