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Endorsement watch: Juvenile courts

I had thought we were at the end of the line for endorsements, but not quite yet.

Natalia Cokinos Oakes

314th Juvenile District Court: Natalia Oakes

Democratic candidate Natalia Oakes has dedicated her career to helping children, and voters should put that passion to use on the bench. Oakes, a graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, has practiced in Harris County family courts for 14 years. Before becoming a lawyer, Oakes worked as a teacher, giving her a solid background for communicating with children and their parents in distress. She told the Chronicle editorial board that she is running for judge to “have the power to introduce new and innovative programs” to the juvenile courts. She would like to see more emphasis on tracking offenders to determine the effectiveness of different rehabilitation programs. Her goals are laudable and her background promising, but her opponent is the tipping point.

Republican incumbent Judge John F. Phillips has served in the 314th since 2002. Despite recognized capabilities, Phillips has earned a reputation for cronyism and heavy handedness. He has been noted for assigning former law partners and campaign contributors as court-appointed attorneys. Phillips also has been criticized for abusing his discretion in separating an abandoned 12-year-old rape victim from her child. We wanted to hear Phillips’ side, but he refused to meet with the editorial board.

Despite her lack of judicial experience, we think the 314th needs a change and that Natalia Oakes will be a capable new judge.

I should note that the Chron endorsed Cokinos Oakes in 2010 for the then-open 313th Juvenile Court. I don’t think she got any less experienced since then. Be that as it may, the Chronicle didn’t mention that the criticism they cite of the incumbent judge in this race comes courtesy of their own Lisa Falkenberg. Falkenberg gives us a reminder of Judge Phillips’ rap sheet.

In recent days, readers have contacted me, some of them apparently on their way to vote early, asking variations of the same question: “What was the name of that judge who took away Angela’s baby?”

By now, all you readers should know his name by heart. But as a frequent sufferer of name-recall syndrome myself, I don’t mind answering.

He is state district Judge John Phillips, a Republican elected to the 314th district court in 2002. After his Republican primary opponent was excluded from the ballot, apparently on a technicality, Phillips was left to face Democrat Natalia Oakes, a juvenile law attorney and former teacher.

In a recent Houston Bar Association poll, Oakes bested Phillips 400-348 – not a huge lead for Oakes but a significant shortcoming for Phillips, a Republican on the bench for more than a decade who holds an administrative position in juvenile courts.

Recently, I asked a reader who votes overwhelmingly Republican and often disagrees with my stances on social issues what kept her from voting straight ticket.

“Well, because there’s always a few,” she said with a laugh. “There’s just always a few.”

She listed Phillips among the few.

[…]

In 2008, I wrote about how the judge ordered two children, aged 1 and 2, from the home of their LaPorte grandparents, who had raised them since infancy, and placed with strangers in a foster home. In a hearing terminating the rights of the parents over drug abuse, Phillips refused to let the grandparents intervene, apparently because he deemed the couple, both in their 50s, too old.

Phillips said the boys would need guidance into their 20s and “the stark reality is there’s a very good chance” their grandparents “will be dead at that time.'”

More recently, a series of columns on 12-year-old rape victim “Angela” gained wide attention from readers. Angela, abandoned by both parents after she became pregnant, was placed in CPS custody. The girl, who had every reason to resent the life inside her, embraced pregnancy, decided on breastfeeding, and even bonded with a Rosharon relative of her foster mother who agreed to provide a loving, stable home for her and her baby.

But when Phillips got wind the Rosharon family was caring for the newborn, he demanded that child protective officials transfer the baby to a foster home in Montgomery County where Angela wouldn’t have access to her.

Phillips told Angela bluntly in court: “You and your baby are not going to be together.”

His reasons had nothing to do with the law. State law only allows children to be taken from parents if there’s evidence of abuse or neglect – neither of which was ever alleged against the young mother.

Phillips was ready to throw Angela away as damaged goods, and he might well have succeeded, if not for attorney Thuy Le, who fought to represent the girl and eventually prevailed in getting a new judge to reunite Angela and her baby.

He also likes to post juvenile crap on Facebook, and he didn’t like the Public Defenders Office, but there’s enough to question his fitness to be a judge without that. Cokinos Oakes did not send me Q&A responses this year but she did so in 2010, and you can see that here. I did get responses from Tracy Good, the Democrat running for the 313th Juvenile Court, and those are here. We’ll see if there is any Falkenberg Effect in this race.

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