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Denise Pratt

Judicial Q&A: Sherri Cothrun

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Sherri Cothrun

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Sherri Cothrun and I am the Democratic candidate for the 311th Family Court in Harris County.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Family Courts hear divorces, child custody cases, paternity suits, adoptions, enforcement of prior orders of the court and CPS cases.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

When I announced my candidacy in September of 2013, Denise Pratt was the presiding judge and I ran against her for all of the reasons she ultimately resigned and was publicly reprimanded by the State Commission of Judicial Conduct. My opponent now is Judge Alicia Franklin who was appointed by Governor Perry on June 13, 2014, after she had won the primary run off against Judge Pratt. In the course of reviewing Judge Franklin’s campaign reports, her web site and her vouchers to the County for services rendered in Children’s Protective Service (CPS) appointments on behalf of children or indigent parents whose paternal rights were subject to termination, I discovered several ethical violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The ethical violations include misrepresenting her position on her web site after she was appointed (Re Elect Judge Franklin) which has now been corrected, and accepting a campaign contribution from a party during the pendency of the case when she was the appointed amicus attorney for the child.

Most of Judge Franklin’s family law experience has been appointments in CPS cases and in private cases to represent the child or the child’s best interest. A review of her vouchers to the county for work in these CPS cases revealed she was charging the county for 18 to 38 hours in a single day. From January 1, 2010 to July 31, 2014, Judge Franklin was paid by the County over $800,000 for the CPS cases. Additionally, after Judge Franklin was sworn to the bench on June 13, 2014, she continued to practice law both in CPS cases and in private cases. A Judge cannot practice law.

A criminal complaint has been filed with the Public Integrity Unit of the District Attorney’s office by attorney Greg Enos against Judge Franklin for tampering with governmental documents related to her vouchers submitted to the County on the CPS cases.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced family law for over 30 years. I am Board Certified in Family Law which means I am an expert in family law. I am a mediator, arbitrator and litigator of family law cases and have vast experience in family law matters. I am also married to my second husband of 17 years and I am a step mother to his boys who were ages 9 and 11 when we married. This experience gives me first hand insight into the issues involving step and blended families. This combination of legal and life experience makes me well qualified to serve the families of Harris County as Judge of the 311th Family Court.

5. Why is this race important?

We must restore experience, competence and integrity to the 311th Family Court. Judges are and must be held to the highest standards of the legal profession. Judges must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and work to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system. Ethical violations and potential illegal activities is evidence of a lack of good judgment, ignorance of the law or indifference to the law. None of which qualify Judge Franklin to remain on the bench.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am the more qualified candidate and I will restore integrity to the 311th Family Court.

Enos files complaint against Judge Franklin

Here we go again.

Alicia Franklin

Lawyer Greg Enos filed a criminal complaint this month with the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division alleging 311th District Court Judge Alicia Franklin submitted false and questionable pay vouchers to the county for court-appointed work in Child Protective Services cases, including one in which she billed for nearly 24 hours of work in a single day and others for work apparently done after she had been sworn in as a judge, a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. She also is accused of billing for trips to the post office and other administrative tasks.

“Taxpayers should not pay attorneys to print documents, e-file pleadings, lick envelopes or drive to the post office to put envelopes in the mail box,” Enos wrote in the complaint. “These amazing time entries are proof that the CPS lawyers submitting invoices have no shame and no fear of their bills being reviewed. It is definite proof that the judges not even read the time entries being submitted before they approve them for payment.”

Enos’ 20-page complaint is based on CPS pay vouchers he obtained from Franklin’s Democratic opponent in the November general election, Sherri Cothrun. The complaint details vouchers filed on four separate days in May when Franklin billed anywhere from 19 hours to 23.5 hours, and show that she billed only in 15-minute increments.

Since filing the complaint, Enos said he has discovered additional vouchers that show Franklin billed for more than 32 hours in a single day, something legal experts say could be either unethical or illegal, if true.

Consultant Jim McGrath, whose public relations firm Franklin hired, was dismissive of Enos’ complaint, calling it a “political smear job” by a “self-described ‘liberal Democrat.'”

“It stinks to high heaven as far as we’re concerned, but it’s the season for politics,” McGrath said.


Outside experts said the evidence in Enos’ complaint is sufficient to warrant an investigation.

“It’s problematic on its face, there’s no doubt about that,” said Robert Schuwerk, professor emeritus at the University of Houston Law Center. “I think it’s got to be looked into.”

Jim McCormack, former general counsel and chief disciplinary counsel of the State Bar of Texas, said the complaint “raises serious questions of fraud, theft and dishonest conduct.”

“Those allegations should be fully investigated by the appropriate prosecutor and the State Bar of Texas,” he said. “Allegations of fraudulent payment requests by a lawyer to a government entity, as well as the alleged charging of unconscionable fees implicate both the criminal laws applicable to everyone and the disciplinary rules governing lawyers.”

See here for the background, see here for the complaint, and see here for invoices submitted by Franklin for work done after June 13, the day she was sworn in as a judge. A sample of the vouchers Franklin submitted with the problems that Enos highlights with them is here. I’ll be very interested to hear what the attorneys out there think of this. As was the case with the complaints filed against now-former Judge Denise Pratt, Enos is requesting that an independent prosecutor be appointed to investigate this. We’ll see what DA Devon Anderson does with this complaint. The latest issue of Enos’ “The Mongoose” newsletter that sums up what he’s got so far on all this is here.

Pratt gets a reprimand

From the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Not exactly timely, but at least it’s on the record.

Denise Pratt

The commission found that [Denise] Pratt, who resigned in late March, “failed to be diligent and failed to timely execute the business of the court,” including not making timely rulings in a variety of specific cases, a violation of the state constitution.

“The decisional delays in those cases were unreasonable and unjustified,” commission Chair Steven Seider wrote in the 13-page reprimand. “The Commission notes that Judge Pratt provided no evidence that these cases involved particularly complex legal issues; however, it was evident that Judge Pratt was carrying a particularly heavy caseload, and a very large backlog, due to her own lack of diligence and neglect of her duties.

“Excluding the fact that Judge Pratt was frequently late to court and often missed or canceled court hearings and trials, there does not appear to be a legitimate justification for the pattern of delayed decision-making that occurred during the last years of Judge Pratt’s tenure on the bench,” the document continues.

Doing those things “causes harm and a great disservice to parties, lawyers, witnesses, jurors, and other judges,” Seider wrote.


[Watchdog family attorney Greg] Enos on Tuesday dismissed the reprimand as tardy and a poor reflection on the commission, which lawyers often criticize for moving slowly and going too easy on the judges it investigates.

“This just shows how useless the Commission on Judicial Conduct is,” he wrote in an email. “They did nothing when we needed protection from Pratt and then they waited months after she was off the bench to slap her wrists.”

True enough, but it’s about the best we were going to get. I note with grim satisfaction that no one on Team Pratt could be reached for a comment for the story. Given the amount of yapping and woofing they’ve done in every other chapter of this saga, their silence in this case speaks volumes. You can read the full reprimand here if you’re curious enough.

Perry appoints Pratt replacement

As expected.

Alicia Franklin

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday appointed Houston family lawyer Alicia Franklin as presiding judge of Harris County’s 311th state District Court, a position left vacant in March after the resignation of disgraced freshman jurist Denise Pratt.

Franklin won a May 27 Republican primary runoff against Pratt, who appeared on the ballot despite her resignation, which came after a deadline to withdraw her name and later was revealed to be part of a deal with the Harris County district attorney to avoid indictment. She will face Democrat Sherri Cothrun in the November general election.

Franklin, who applied for the appointment, said she has already consulted with the visiting judges who have been hearing cases in the 311th since Pratt’s resignation and plans to work with them closely during her transition. The 36-year-old, who has no prior judicial experience, said she also has sought the advice of other family court judges about how they run their courts and keep their caseloads manageable.

“I’m very, very excited and eager to get started,” Franklin said.

See here for the full Pratt archives if you need a refresher. It’s been pretty standard for nominee to get appointed in a situation like this. Would have been interesting to see what Perry would have done if Pratt had managed to win the runoff, but we’ll leave that for the alternate-history books. I’ll be voting for Sherri Cothrun in November, but I wish new Judge Franklin all the best in straightening out Pratt’s ginormous mess. All the people that have been adversely affected by Pratt’s disastrous term in office will thank you for whatever progress you can make. Texpatriate has more.

Primary runoff results

So long, Dave.

So very sad

Riding a wave of conservative sentiment that Texas Republicans were not being led with a hard enough edge, state Sen. Dan Patrick crushed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff election for lieutenant governor, ending the career of a dominant figure in state politics for the last dozen years.

The Associated Press called the race shortly after 8 p.m., just an hour after polls closed in most of the state. As votes were still being counted, Patrick was winning by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.

Patrick’s victory marked the end of a rough campaign for Dewhurst, who trailed Patrick, a second term senator, by 13 percentage points in the four-way March primary. The incumbent sought to define Patrick, who is far less well-known statewide, as an untrustworthy figure more given to self-serving publicity stunts than the meticulous business of governing.


Dewhurst, who built a fortune in the energy industry and entered politics as a big-dollar Republican donor, won his first election as land commissioner in 1998 which laid the groundwork for a successful run for lieutenant governor in 2002, twice winning re-election in 2006 and 2010.

But Dewhurst’s luck turned when he lost the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2012 to Ted Cruz, a former solicitor general, who captured the spirit of the rising tea party movement in Texas. Cruz took advantage of an election calendar delayed by redistricting fights, holding Dewhurst to less than 50 percent in the primary and surging past him in the mid-summer runoff.

Dewhurst’s defeat at the hands of Cruz exposed Dewhurst’s vulnerability and when it turned out that he was going to try for a fourth term as lieutenant governor as the capstone of his career, Patrick, Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples proceeded with their candidacies to try to take him out.

Let’s be clear that while Dan Patrick is a terrible human being who should never be entrusted with political power, David Dewhurst deserves no sympathy for his plight. He brought it on himself, and no one should be surprised by what happened. I doubt Dewhurst could ever have been sufficiently “conservative” to satisfy the seething masses that Dan Patrick represents, and I doubt he could have been powerful enough to have scared Patrick and his ego from challenging him, but there was nothing stopping him from being a better and more engaged Lt. Governor. I’m sure his many millions of dollars will be an adequate salve for his wounds, so again, no need for sympathy.

Democrats were obviously ready for this result. I’ve lost count of the number of statements and press releases that have hit my inbox so far. This statement from Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, was the first to arrive:

“Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are two peas in a pod when it comes to women’s health, having led the fight to block Texas women from their rights and access to health care. Both oppose access to safe and legal abortion, even in cases of incest or rape. And both have worked to cut women off from preventative health services, and to close health centers, including Planned Parenthood clinics, that offer affordable birth control and cancer screenings.

Abbott and Patrick have made clear that they do not trust Texas women to make their own health care decisions. But the decision Texas women make at the ballot box this November will decide the election. You can’t win in Texas by working against Texas women. We’ve had enough of politicians like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, who want to impose their personal agenda on all Texas women – and between now and Election Day, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes will be working around the clock to make sure that Texas women know what the Abbott-Patrick ticket will mean for their access to health care.”

Others came in from Sen. Van de Putte, the Wendy Davis campaign, who wondered when we’d see Patrick and Abbott together, the Texas Organizing Project, and Annie’s List. The van de Putte campaign also released a statement announcing the support of “two prominent business leaders”: William Austin Ligon, the co-founder and retired CEO of CarMax, and Republican Louis Barrios, with whom we are already familiar. It’s a nice move to deflect a bit of attention, but I sure hope that list grows and grows and grows.

In other Republican news, the deeply unethical Ken Paxton won the AG nomination, the deeply unqualified Sid Miller won the Ag Commissioner nomination, and Ryan Sitton won the Railroad Commissioner nomination. As I’ve said before, this is easily the weakest Republican statewide slate in my memory. Doesn’t mean they won’t win, just that there’s no reason to be scared of them – as candidates, anyway. They should scare the hell out of you as officeholders, but they’re no electoral juggernaut.

On the Democratic side, the good news is that David Alameel won easily in his runoff for the US Senate nomination, with over 70% of the vote. All I can say is that I sincerely hope this is the last we hear of Kesha Rogers, and if it’s not I hope enough people know who and what she is so that she won’t be a factor in whatever race she turns up in. In other news – whether good or bad depends on your perspective – Jim Hogan defeated Kinky Friedman for the Ag Commissioner nomination. Hogan’s a zero, but I guess too many people weren’t ready to forgive Friedman for his prior offenses. I voted for Kinky in the runoff, but I understand the feeling. The main lesson here is that a first-time candidate in a statewide primary needs more than just endorsements to be successful. Either they get the funds they need to get their name out to a few hundred thousand voters, or you get a random result. Ask Hugh Fitzsimons, and ask David Alameel.

Dem statewide results are here and Republican statewide results are here. Bob Deuell lost in the SD02 runoff, making the Senate that much more stupid next year than it needed to be, while 91-year-old Congressman Ralph Hall appears to be finally headed for retirement. Some reasons for guarded optimism downballot: Ben Streusand lost in CD36, SBOE member Pat Hardy defeated the truly bizarre Eric Mahroum, and most of the Parent PAC candidates appear to have won. You take your victories where you can. Also, as noted below, Denise Pratt was soundly defeated in her runoff. So there’s that.

There will be plenty of time to talk about these races in more depth as we go. I may do some number-twiddling with them if I think there’s anything of interest in the county and precinct results. For now, it’s on to November, with a brief pause along the way in June for the SD04 runoff. For various reactions and liveblogs, see the Observer, the Trib, BOR, PDiddie, Juanita, and the always full of wit John Coby. And in closing, this may be the saddest thing I’ve ever read:

As the early voting totals rolled in, showing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst behind by nearly 20 percent, supporters trickled in to a small election watch party north of the Galleria.

Members of the press outnumbered the early crowd, but campaign staff said they expected nearly 200 people to arrive. Many were still working the polls, they said, hoping to eke more votes out of a rainy day.

Almost enough to make me feel sorry for him. Almost.

Pratt campaign sign mystery apparently solved

Nice detective work.

Denise Pratt

Last week, when campaign signs for disgraced former family court judge Denise Pratt popped up at some early voting locations in Houston, several sources said they had seen local Republican political consultant Burt Levine putting them up.

Levine’s name did not make the story, however, as he did not return the calls and messages I left for him (after he hung up on me). A photo sent to me Tuesday would appear to confirm those source reports. In Levine’s right hand, you can see a Pratt campaign flier peeking out.

Despite Pratt’s announcement on March 28 that she would immediately resign and suspend her re-election campaign – later revealed to be part of a deal with the Harris County District Attorney to avoid indictment – her name appeared on the GOP ballot as she missed a deadline to withdraw. Her resignation was, according to a recent statement issued by District Attorney Devon Anderson, “in exchange for her voluntary and permanent resignation from the judiciary.”

Given that stipulation, the questions raised by Levine’s apparent campaigning are: Does Pratt know he is doing this? Is she paying him to do it or is he just a diehard supporter who had some extra signs, fliers and buttons laying around? If Pratt is in on it, would Anderson consider it a violation of their agreement?

See here for the background, and click the story link above for the photo and the circumstantial case that Levine was paid by the Pratt campaign for the sign work. I’m sure a denial will be forthcoming from one or both of them, but again, it’s not like the Pratt campaign has established a baseline of trustworthiness. In one sense it doesn’t matter since Pratt got creamed in the runoff, and can now slink off into a well-deserved obscurity. In terms of her secret resignation deal with DA Devon Anderson, it does matter. Anderson should answer the questions reporter Kiah Collier poses, and frankly she should demand that Pratt prove she had nothing to do with Levine’s actions. I don’t expect either of those to happen, so let that stand as a lesson for why sticking to the normal process and doing it transparently is the better way.

What campaign signs?

Denise Pratt says she knows nothing about all those campaign signs advocating her re-election that she says she isn’t running for.

Denise Pratt

Campaign signs urging voters to “Re-elect Denise Pratt” have popped up outside at least three early voting locations this week, more than two months after the family court judge announced her immediate resignation and the suspension of her re-election campaign – later revealed to be part of a deal with the Harris County District Attorney to avoid indictment.

“It’s very puzzling,” said local Republican activist Joseph McReynolds, who was handing out mailers for the Spring Branch Republicans outside the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center on West Gray, where there were 18 Pratt campaign signs on Thursday, including a row of nine along the street leading up to the driveway. Pratt signs also were found at early voting locations in Kingwood and George Bush Park in west Houston.

In early April, two days after she resigned, Pratt sparked rumors that she still was campaigning when she sent a text message to supporters asking them to urge an influential endorser to hold off on switching his support to her challenger in the May 27 Republican primary runoff.

The Baytown native denied the rumors, posting a statement on her campaign website that said she had, “in fact,” suspended her re-election efforts. The statement still was there on Thursday.

Asked about the signs, Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said via email “We have no knowledge of that.”

Clearly, this is the work of some overzealous volunteers. What other possible explanation could there be? OK, OK, Texpatriate mentions rumors of some third party troublemaker planting the signs, and I have to admit that this election is more suitable than most for that kind of shenanigan. It’s a possibility that deserves at least a bit more consideration than snarky dismissal. That said, there’s no particular reason to trust anything the Pratt campaign has to say. So we’ll see what happens.

More on the Pratt resignation deal

I’m still shaking my head about this.

Denise Pratt

The Harris County district attorney still could investigate and charge former family court Judge Denise Pratt, despite striking a deal with the freshman jurist to resign to avoid prosecution on charges of tampering with government records.

Asked to elaborate on the terms of the agreement that led to Pratt’s March 28 resignation, a spokesman for District Attorney Devon Anderson said Thursday, “If new evidence is discovered, we can investigate and move forward with charges if warranted.”

Whether the deal Anderson struck with Pratt made the former judge immune from future charges was one of many questions raised by her critics on Thursday, the day after the county’s top prosecutor revealed the agreement in a statement that said pursuing a conviction would have been difficult.

The agreement, Anderson’s statement said, was the best and quickest way to get Pratt off the bench and bring the “ongoing damage to a stop.”

The district attorney issued the statement in response to criticism from her opponent in the November general election, Democrat Kim Ogg, who said earlier this week that the evidence brought against Pratt was more than sufficient to bring charges. Ogg said the lack of charges was suspicious because Pratt and Anderson – both Republicans – used the same political consultant.

See here for the background. I keep coming back to the question that if this was such a good move by DA Devon Anderson, if this really was the only way to get Denise Pratt off the bench, then why didn’t Anderson say so at the time? Why are we just hearing about it now that Anderson’s political opponent Kim Ogg dug it up started making a fuss about it? The fact that Anderson didn’t say a word about it when Pratt resigned and claimed it was because her opponents were out to get her, the fact that we might not know any of this now if Anderson weren’t on the ballot in November, strongly suggests that maybe this deal wasn’t something to be proud of but rather something to be hushed up.

Webster family lawyer Greg Enos, whose criminal complaints against Pratt prompted at least two district attorney investigations that resulted in no charges, took issue with Anderson’s contention that the resignation was the quickest way to get the judge off the bench.

He said the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state agency charged with policing Texas judges, typically suspends judges who have been indicted, and that “Any brand new attorney fresh out of law school could have gotten an indictment of Pratt.”

Commission Executive Director Seana Willing confirmed that the commission typically votes to suspend indicted judges.


[South Texas College of Law associate professor Amanda Peters, a former Harris County prosecutor,] and other experts say Pratt’s alleged actions definitely would qualify as tampering with a government record under state law. Section 37 of the penal code says court records qualify as governmental records and that tampering includes “knowingly entering a false record.”

“My read of the statute is that, if it is true that she backdated court orders, knowing that she was making false entries, this should be a violation of the law,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center.

Anderson’s statements this week, however, suggested there was not sufficient evidence to prove Pratt guilty.

“The process of getting Judge Pratt before a jury for trial would take years,” her Wednesday statement said. “The likelihood of success would be uncertain at best.”

That’s talking about a conviction, not an indictment, which would have been enough to get Pratt suspended. That’s not a “permanent resignation”, but it is at least enforceable. Looking back through my archives, here’s a copy of the first complaint that the grand jury declined to indict on, and here’s a copy of the third complaint. Maybe getting an indictment wasn’t a slam dunk, but then neither does it take years to make that determination. There is an argument to be made here for prosecutorial discretion on Anderson’s part. I’d be more willing to accept it if she’d have been willing to make it in a timely and forthright manner, instead of employing it as defense after being called out for exercising that discretion on the sly.

UPDATE: Texpatriate has more.

Pratt’s resignation deal

Now here‘s an interesting twist to the story.

Denise Pratt

Former family court Judge Denise Pratt’s resignation in late March was part of a deal to avoid indictment, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said Wednesday, asserting that the document tampering case would have been difficult to prosecute and that the agreement was the best and quickest way to get the rookie jurist off the bench and bring the “ongoing damage to a stop.”

In a shorter statement issued the day before, Anderson described Pratt’s actions as “reprehensible” but made no mention of the deal, saying only that prosecutors concluded after investigating the judge that “while there may have been probable cause, her actions did not rise to the level of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.”

Anderson issued that statement on Tuesday in response to criticisms from Democrat Kim Ogg, her opponent in the November general election. Ogg lambasted the incumbent district attorney this week for not prosecuting Pratt, saying the “weight of the evidence” brought against the Baytown native was more than sufficient to bring charges and that the absence appeared suspicious because Pratt and Anderson – both Republicans – had shared a political consultant when the allegations were brought.

Asked on Wednesday to clarify the statement, Anderson issued a lengthier one saying that her office “made a hard decision – not to prosecute a difficult case against Judge Pratt in exchange for her voluntary and permanent resignation from the judiciary – and we believe that it was consistent with our primary responsibility to see that justice is done.”

“The agreement we reached brought the ongoing damage to a stop and allowed the system to begin the process of repairing the harm already done,” the statement said. “Obviously, Ms. Ogg did not participate in the two-month investigation of Judge Pratt by four experienced and apolitical Public Integrity Division prosecutors and she does not have the benefit of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence against Judge Pratt. This office does have the benefit of that knowledge, and made the professional assessment that the process of getting Judge Pratt before a jury for trial would take years and that the likelihood of success would be uncertain at best.”


She was under investigation again this year after dismissing more than 630 cases without warning to lawyers or litigants on the final two days of 2013 – the subject of Enos’ second criminal complaint, filed in January – and resigned on March 28, pegging her departure to “relentless political attacks.”

The statement announcing her immediate resignation and the suspension of her re-election campaign made no mention of a deal with the district attorney.

After Pratt’s departure, Enos and other lawyers said they believed it was tied to a deal.

Ogg on Tuesday had called on Anderson to request an independent, special prosecutor be appointed to investigate Enos’ complaints. Ogg said the county’s top prosecutor should have done that in the first place to avoid the appearance of impropriety as she and Pratt shared the same political consultant, Allen Blakemore, at the time Enos’ complaints were filed.

On Wednesday, Ogg said it was “unethical” for Anderson to use evidence that she suggested was insufficient to charge Pratt as leverage to force her resignation, describing it as a “secret plea bargain.”

“An ordinary citizen is rarely, if ever, offered an opportunity to resign from their job in exchange for dismissal of a criminal complaint and this confirmation by the district attorney of a secret plea deal reveals this district attorney’s double standard: One standard for fellow Republican judges and a different standard for ordinary citizens,” said the former prosecutor and head of Crime Stoppers.

It’s certainly the case that at the time of Pratt’s resignation, there was no mention of a deal. Does this mean that the complaints filed in Feburary have now been dropped? Here are the two statements made by DA Devon Anderson. My reading of them suggests that indeed Pratt is no longer under investigation of any kind. From the first statement on Tuesday:

In early January of this year, The Harris County District Attorney’s Office received additional complaints against Judge Pratt and a new investigation began. Prosecutors in the Public Integrity Division investigated every single allegation. The District Attorney’s Office came to the conclusion that Judge Pratt’s conduct was reprehensible, and while there may have been probable cause, her actions did not rise to the level of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.

Sure sounds like the investigations are finished to me. Now let’s look at this bit from the second statement:

This office made a hard decision – not to prosecute a difficult case against Judge Pratt in exchange for her voluntary and permanent resignation from the judiciary – and we believe that it was consistent with our primary responsibility to see that justice is done.

Emphasis mine. With all due respect, what enforcement mechanism is in place for this? What is to stop Denise Pratt from moving to, say, Polk County and running for judge there? What’s to stop her from becoming a visiting judge? There’s no official mark on her record, after all. As I understand it, the latter complaints were both misdemeanors, so the statute of limitations will run out on them before too long. What would stop her from running for judge, or maybe Justice of the Peace in a Republican-friendly precinct, at that time? And why is this a better outcome than presenting the evidence to another grand jury and letting them decide for themselves? Maybe with an actual indictment in hand you could have gotten an enforceable deal.

I have to think that at some level, Devon Anderson gets this. If this deal had truly been the best possible outcome, and if it had been something she’d been proud of, or at least satisfied with, why wouldn’t she have announced it at the time? Don’t you tell people when you’ve done something good? Politicians running for office generally do. And when they do something they’re not all that keen about, they don’t. Anderson’s actions here are speaking pretty loudly. She could have said her piece when Pratt resigned, but instead she kept her mouth shut while Pratt blathered on about how she was run out of town by her political opponents. Maybe Devon Anderson could make a case for the deal, but I don’t see any merit to allowing the misinformation to stand. Am I the only one who thinks there’s still more to this story?

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.

Time is running out to undo Pratt’s mass dismissals

Remember when now-former Judge Denise Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases at the end of 2013 without notice? Since her abrupt resignation last month, other Family Court judges have been trying to clean up the mess she left behind. This includes reaching out to lawyers and clients that were affected by the New Year’s Eve purge.

Denise Pratt

With deadlines looming, Harris County administrative judges are asking lawyers who had cases dismissed as part of a mass purge by former Family Court Judge Denise Pratt to tell them if they had filed motions asking those cases be reinstated or risk having to start over from scratch.

Pratt, who abruptly resigned late last month, dismissed more than 630 cases on the final two days of 2013. Lawyers said she did not notify them or their clients of the dismissals or schedule hearings for them, as required by law.


At least 260 of the cases were not inactive, with about 230 having been reinstated before Pratt’s March 28 departure, according David Farr, administrative judge for the county’s nine family courts.

Farr said he has found about 30 paper copies of motions to reinstate cases in the 311th courtroom that were filed on time by lawyers but had not been signed or scheduled for hearings by Pratt.

“I strongly suspect that there are other motions to reinstate which were timely filed … but that were not set for hearings prior to Judge Pratt’s departure,” Farr wrote in an email blast to family lawyers on Tuesday. “The Harris County Administrative Judge Robert Schaeffer and I are currently attempting numerous measures in order to identify those ‘lost motions to reinstate,’ which include this email … ‘”

Farr said he has asked the district clerk to track down all electronic motions but is concerned he may not find all of them before deadlines next week. The deadline for reinstating any of the 630-plus cases dismissed at the end of December is April 14 and 15.

Judge Farr had found unsigned orders and other paperwork that may or may not have been filed and processed as part of the triage on Pratt’s files. I think it’s safe to say at this point that if you had any unfinished business in Pratt’s court, now would be an excellent time to inquire with Judge Farr about the status of your case, to make sure that they know about it and that all the paperwork is accounted for so that it can be handed to another judge for disposition. Don’t assume and don’t wait, there’s a deadline approaching.

Pratt Mess gets messier

How much worse can it get?

Judge Denise Pratt

Hundreds of divorce, child support and custody cases dating back to 2012 will have to be revisited – and possibly sent back to trial – as a court administrator sorts out what he called the “random chaos” left behind by former District Family Court Judge Denise Pratt.

The freshman jurist, who abruptly resigned late last month, left nearly 300 court orders stacked on the floor and desk of her 311th District Court, according to Judge David Farr, the administrative judge for Harris County’s nine family courts.

Most of the orders, Farr said, are final agreements needing only a judge’s signature, meaning families are waiting to hear that their cases have been concluded or think they already are.

“Somebody may be out there thinking they’ve been divorced for a couple months; not the case,” said Farr, who is charged with finding judges to staff Pratt’s court until Gov. Rick Perry announces a replacement. Farr said cleaning the administrative mess after Pratt’s sudden departure likely will take months.


Farr said a majority of the orders he found in Pratt’s courtroom, some nearly a year and a half old, are topped with sticky notes – blue, yellow, green, pink – containing hand-written messages from Pratt giving directions, expressing concerns or posing questions about the terms of an agreement to which both parties had signed off.

He said there is no way to determine whether the issues raised on the sticky notes were addressed, or the correct status of the orders without them, meaning lawyers will have to be called in for status hearings, and many families will incur additional legal costs.

“It is random chaos that’s going to have to be dealt with case by case by case,” Farr said. “Every single thing I pick up makes my head hurt, it’s so problematic.”

Austin lawyer Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said a Texas judge as high ranking as Pratt has not left a “mess of this size” behind in recent memory, citing a statewide list of resignations since 2001. Some judges have been sanctioned in the past for similar administrative failures, she said.

Asked about the stacks of orders, Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said “the staff of the 311th are adamant that the numbers cited are grossly exaggerated.”

“It is kind of pitiful that people continue to beat a dead horse,” Yates wrote in an e-mail.

See here for the background. So basically, either the lawyers and clients and Judge Farr are all lying, or Judge Pratt really is a lousy judge. Seems like an Occam’s Razor situation to me. And remember – she’s still on the ballot, and still could be the Republican nominee.

How can we miss you if you won’t go away?

Denise Pratt is a gift that keeps on giving.

Judge Denise Pratt

Denise Pratt may not be gone just yet.

Two days after announcing her immediate resignation as presiding judge of the 311th family District Court – and the suspension of her re-election campaign – Pratt sent a text message to supporters on Sunday asking them to “call or txt” an influential endorser, Dr. Steven Hotze, and encourage him to wait a few weeks before announcing his support for her challenger in a May 27 runoff, Alicia Franklin.

“I am stil heavily favored by the party and attys as seen by wed fundraiser,” Pratt wrote. “And let him know he will b supported also.”

“It’s bizarre,” Franklin said on Tuesday, noting that Pratt had called her on Friday to concede, making her promise to “win in November.”

Despite Pratt’s resignation late Friday, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart said her name still will appear on the ballot next month because she missed a March 12 withdrawal deadline. If she wins, Stanart said, her name would appear on the November general election ballot unless she becomes ineligible by moving out of the county, being deemed mentally incompetent by a court, being charged with a felony or dying.

That was followed this morning by a statement, which I also received, that reads, in full, “Despite published reports to the contrary, I have, in fact, suspended my reelection efforts and I am not conducting a campaign.” That, I suppose, clears that up, but there’s still the fact that she’s on the ballot. Like I said yesterday, if her name is on the ballot she can still win the runoff, and thus be the nominee in November. If she withdraws at that time, Democrat Sherri Cothrun wins by default. If she tries some kind of evasive maneuver by claiming to be a resident of another county, which would allow for a replacement candidate to be selected a la Tom DeLay’s “I’m a Virginian” scam in 2006, you can be certain it will wind up in court.

(By the way, remember when Greg Abbott filed an amicus brief on DeLay’s behalf in that fiasco? Good times, good times.)

“If your name is on the ballot, you can win, on a technical basis, yes, that is technically possible,” said Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. “The question would be: Is she going to run a campaign?”

Nice try, Jared, but “technically” winning is the same as winning. Feel free to make that argument in court if it comes to that. As Mark Jones says, y’all better hope she loses in May, because it gets messy for you otherwise.

Cleaning up Pratt’s mess

It’s up to the other judges now.

Judge Denise Pratt

The administrative judge for Harris County’s nine family courts said Monday it could take months to sort out the mess left behind in the 311th family court following the abrupt resignation of its presiding judge, Denise Pratt.

The freshman jurist’s immediate departure, announced late Friday, came as a surprise to Judge David Farr, who was left scrambling Monday to find a judge to preside over a court where he said there are “boxes, piles, stacks” of hundreds of courts orders that have not been signed or entered into the court computer system.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Farr, who met with the 311th staff Monday morning. “It gets worse with every report from my staff.”

According to monthly caseload statistics kept by Farr’s office, Pratt’s court had the most cases pending at the end of February – 2,713 – of any of the nine family courts. Farr had to reschedule one case that had been set to go to trial on Monday.


Farr said judges usually provide prior notice before leaving, to allow for “a clean handoff between themselves and their successor.”

“There was no notice whatsoever,” he said, noting that he did not find out about Pratt’s plans until Friday, the day of her announcement, when someone alerted him to a post on her Facebook page.

Farr, who met with staff of the 311th Court Monday morning, said he assumes Perry will not appoint a replacement, who would serve through year’s end, until June 1. Pratt, who had been slated to appear on the ballot in a May 27 runoff, had been campaigning for a second term that begins Jan. 1.

See here for the background. You may recall that Pratt made news for having dismissed hundreds of cases at the end of last year, mostly without notice. According to an earlier version of the story, all dismissals now must go through Judge Farr first. What I’m hoping is that now that she is no longer a colleague, one or more of the remaining judges and/or members of their staff will now feel free to talk to the press about this. It would be very useful for someone who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome of any cases that had been before Denise Pratt to offer a frank assessment of her career as a judge. You can read between the lines here for a sense of Judge Farr’s frustration, but I’d like to hear it straight up. A little transparency would do a lot of good.

One more thing:

Pratt also suspended her re-election campaign, but still will appear on the ballot after securing the highest percentage of the vote in a five-way contest on March 4 for a term that begins Jan. 1. The Harris County Republican Party Chairman said Friday that the challenger, Houston family lawyer Alicia Franklin, will be the party’s nominee.

I’m not sure if it’s the outgoing Chair or the incoming Chair that’s being quoted here, but it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty sure he can’t guarantee that. Pratt is still on the ballot – the deadline to withdraw was March 12 – so she could still win the runoff. I don’t think Paul Simpson gets to wave a magic wand and install Alicia Franklin if that happens. Granted, I think it’s unlikely after all the bad publicity that Pratt will win the runoff, but as long as she is on the ballot it’s a possibility.

Pratt resigns

Good riddance.

Judge Denise Pratt

Under investigation by Harris County prosecutors for dismissing hundreds of cases without notice, embattled family court judge Denise Pratt resigned Friday, abruptly ending her re-election bid.

The freshman Republican jurist campaigned as a conservative advocate for children and families, touting her unique policy of keeping boyfriends, girlfriends and lovers of recently divorced litigants away from children. While a bevy of Houston-area lawyers and families who have rallied against Pratt challenged that claim, the Baytown native defended her record Friday in a statement that said her departure from the 311th state District Court was due to the damage that “relentless attacks by my political opponents” were having on the court, the local Republican Party and her family.

“I cannot, in good conscience, allow it to continue,” she wrote on her campaign website. “My goal has always been to serve the children and families of Harris County, but I won’t sacrifice my family’s well-being any longer to continue to serve as judge. … I don’t want to see my party, which I have worked to build, dragged down by the media circus.”


On Friday, Pratt critics said they were elated by the resignation, but also frustrated that she continues to deny wrongdoing.

“Instead of taking responsibility for her actions, she’s blaming people like me, when all the lawyers want are judges who show up to work and follow the law and treat people fairly,” Enos said. “Had she done that, she wouldn’t be in this position.”

See here for all the previous entries. I received a copy of Pratt’s statement on Friday, and it’s an epic miasma of whiny self-pity; I’ve pasted it beneath the fold so you can experience it for yourselves. Putting all partisan considerations aside, this is good news. Her incompetence and petulance were causing real problems for a lot of people, and her departure makes the judiciary better overall. I’m glad to see her service come to an end.

That said, as the story notes the deadline to withdraw from the ballot for the runoff was two weeks ago, so despite her resignation she could still be the nominee in the 311th District Family Court. If she manages to win the runoff against Alicia Franklin and then withdraws from the race, Democrat Sherri Cothrun will be unopposed in November. I’m thinking that might cause a bit of a hubbub in the media – if she really wanted to avoid any circuses, she should have submitted her resignation before the March 12 deadline for the runoff. Given Pratt’s refusal to admit any flaws on her part and her insistence that all the bad things we negative nellies have been saying about her are just dirty politics, one has to wonder what prompted this. One might speculate about the status of the latest complaint against her and the ensuing investigation. If we hear any news on that front, we’ll know. Beyond that, as I said I don’t really care. A bad judge is stepping down. That’s what matters. See below for her statement, and Texpatriate has more.


Still more from the Pratt files

What a mess.

Judge Denise Pratt

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.

Primary results: Harris County

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

The big news here is that there were no surprises on the Democratic side, in particular no unpleasant surprises. By far the best news was that Kim Ogg easily bested Lloyd Oliver in the primary for DA, with over 70% of the vote. I doubt we’ve seen the last of this particular plague on our house, but I think it’s fair to say that this time, Oliver’s name recognition did not work for him. I hope by now there have been enough negative stories about him – that Observer piece got shared far and wide on Facebook – that now when people see his name, it’s not a good thing for him. In any event, we Dems managed to not make the same mistake we made in 2012, so we can have ourselves a real DA race this fall. Thank goodness for that.

The three incumbent legislators that had primary challengers all won without breaking a sweat. Sen. John Whitmire had 75%, Rep. Carol Alvarado had 85%, and Rep. Alma Allen was right at 90%. The other race of interest was in the 113th District Civil Court, where Steven Kirkland pulled out a close win. The thing I noticed was that while Kirkland won early voting with 51% (he trailed slightly in absentee ballots), he won Election Day with over 54%. I have to think that the late stories about serial sugar daddy George Fleming worked in Kirkland’s favor. If so, that makes me very happy. If Kirkland wins this November, it means it’ll be at least until 2018 before we have to deal with Fleming’s crap again. Maybe by then he’ll have gotten a grip and moved on with his life. I for one certainly hope so.

On the Republican side, Rep. Sarah Davis easily held off teabag challenger Bonnie Parker, clearing 70% with room to spare. Hard to believe now that this was seen as a hot race. Embattled Family Court Judge Denise Pratt led the field of five for her bench, but she had only 30% of the vote. That runoff will be interesting to watch. Most other incumbents won easily – Sen. Joan Huffman, Rep. Debbie Riddle, District Clerk Chris Daniel, and Treasurer Orlando Sanchez – while former Council member Al Hoang defeated Nghi Ho for the nomination in HD149. One other incumbent wasn’t so lucky, now-former Party Chair Jared Woodfill, who was ousted by Paul Simpson. I don’t know if County Judge Ed Emmett smokes cigars, but if he fired one up after these numbers started coming in, I for one would not blame him.

On turnout, Election Day wound up being roughly equal to early non-absentee voting on both sides. I’d say the weather plus maybe a bit of Mardi Gras had an effect. We got the results we wanted in Harris County, so I’m not too concerned about it.

UPDATE: I have to laugh at this:

Ogg, 54, said she spent $150,000 to get her message out for the primary. Her opponent, Lloyd Oliver, did not raise or spend a penny on his campaign.

“I guess the weather did me in,” Oliver said Tuesday.

Before the election, the 70-year-old said gray skies meant only the “party elite” would make it to the polls.

“They control the establishment side, and for some reason, I don’t see me ever making it on the establishment side,” he said. “You can either be establishment or a loose cannon, but you can’t be in-between.”

Yes, the weather did you in, Lloyd. Which is why Kim Ogg was leading with over 70% in early voting. Please feel free to go away and never come back now, Lloyd.

DA investigating Judge Pratt again

Here we go again.

Judge Denise Pratt

Two months after a grand jury cleared embattled state District Judge Denise Pratt of accusations she had tampered with court records, the Harris County District Attorney’s office again is looking into the family court jurist.

Houston lawyer Anna Stool, a former federal prosecutor, said she was called in by the district attorney’s office two weeks agoto answer questions about a child custody case she has in Pratt’s 311th Court in which the judge made the unusual move of finalizing temporary orders by scratching out the word ‘temporary’ with a pen and writing ‘final’ above it. As a result, the case – first opened in 2007 – officially was closed.

There was “never a hearing,” Stool said. “I just found the thing by accident because I started checking (Harris County District Clerk) Chris Daniel’s website.”

County and courthouse sources say several lawyers have been called to the district attorney’s office recently to answer questions about cases in Pratt’s court, and that the questioning is part of another investigation into the freshman judge, who is seeking re-election this year.


Stool is asking for Pratt to be recused from the case altogether. She filed a motion last Friday, after weeks of waiting on Pratt to respond to another request she submitted in late January for a new trial, days before being questioned by the district attorney’s office.

Stool said she decided to file the recusal motion because problems in Pratt’s court have been “ongoing” and, so far, she has gotten “nothing” for her client.

“I cannot explain to her what the problem is, except to tell her that I don’t know why this is happening,” she said. “But I don’t think, based on what’s happened, that I can get a fair trial in this court.”

See here for the previous chapter in this saga, and here for the whole kit and kaboodle. I don’t know what Judge Pratt’s chances are in the GOP primary, but the fact that she’s competitive at all is kind of amazing. Texpatriate has more.

Endorsement watch: The remaining judicial races

The Chron finishes off the contested judicial primaries.

246th Family District Court: Julia Maldonado

In a race between two qualified candidates, we encourage voters to go with Julia Maldonado. Her goals of a quicker docket and a more welcoming staff would help relieve the stress of family court. A graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Maldonado, 52, is board certified in family law and has 15 years experience in the field.

280th Family District Court: Barbara Stalder

Designed primarily to hear protective orders that involve domestic violence, the 280th Family District Court handles some of the most heart-wrenching cases in Harris County. This judge must be able to delve into the depths of human cruelty while maintaining a fair bench. Barbara Stalder, 53, is one of few people in our state who is prepared for this challenge. Board certified in family law, Stadler has spent her entire legal career in service to victims of domestic violence in Houston. Whether establishing a children’s legal services program with Equal Justice Works, representing women and children in the Houston office of Aid to Victims of Domestic Violence or returning to her alma mater to serve as supervising attorney in the civil clinic at the University of Houston Law Center, Stalder embodies the dedication and experience that voters should want in a family court judge. She has worked to protect children who watched their mother killed before their eyes by their own father, and she has smacked down frivolous cases where people falsely alleged violence for their own misguided aims.

308th Family District Court: Bruce Steffler

Bruce Steffler not only has an unmatched breadth and depth of experience in family law, but a calm and focused demeanor befitting a judge. Board certified in family law since 1988, Steffler, 68, candidly recognizes the issues of unprepared judges, long docket waits and expensive litigation, and he will be ready to address those problems. A graduate of South Texas College of Law, Steffler embodies a knowledgeable seriousness that makes him a model candidate for judge.

They also reiterated their endorsement of Steven Kirkland in the 113th. As was the case with Sen. Whitmire, these endorsements were listed on the Chron’s comprehensive list of primary endorsements that ran on Tuesday. Why they were unable to run these endorsements before Tuesday will remain a mystery. The Chron also picked Anthony Magdaleno from the crowded GOP field for the 311th Family District Court as the best alternative to Judge Denise Pratt – Democratic candidate Sherri Cothrun is unopposed in her primary – and in a separate editorial recommended incumbent District Clerk Chris Daniel over challenger Court Koenning. At this point, I think the only race they haven’t covered yet is the Democratic primary for County Clerk. That one wasn’t on their Tuesday list, so I don’t know if they hadn’t done their screening yet or if they’re just not going to bother with it. We’ll see.

Complaint #3 against Judge Pratt

Greg Enos does not give up, y’all.

Judge Denise Pratt

With just days before early voting begins in the GOP primary, Webster family lawyer Greg Enos has filed a third criminal complaint against embattled family court Judge Denise Pratt with the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

The complaint, which details one of the 631 cases Pratt dismissed on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, accuses the freshman Republican judge — who is seeking a second term this year — of backdating an order in open court. It includes sworn affidavits from a couple who say Pratt informed them that she was “backdating this order” and screenshots indicating Pratt signed the order at an April 25 hearing, but dated it March 5.

Enos’ second criminal complaint, filed last month, alleges that Pratt broke the law by purging hundreds of cases last month without giving prior notice to lawyers or their clients. His first complaint against the district court judge, filed in October, accuses her of backdating orders in two unrelated cases. That complaint led to the resignation of Pratt’s lead clerk and sparked an investigation by the DA’s office and a grand jury, which ultimately no-billed her.

Pratt, through her lawyer, blamed the backdating on her court clerks. Enos says it’s “totally different” this time.

“The last time was circumstantial. She was blaming the clerks,” he said. “If these two witnesses are willing to go into a grand jury and the (Harris County) District Clerk’s records back up what they say … I don’t know how she would not get indicted for this.”

See here for previous blogging on Judge Pratt. Houston Politics has a copy of the complaint and a few more details. This whole thing is just…wow. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Texpatriate has more.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Alameel

The Houston Chronicle makes a nice endorsement of David Alameel for the Democratic nomination for Senate.

David Alameel

David Alameel

David Alameel isn’t your usual political candidate. Most big money political donors don’t start like Alameel: a gas station attendant and farm laborer. But this Lebanese immigrant’s story of working his way up to the top by joining the Army, becoming a dentist and eventually selling his chain of dental offices in Dallas to a venture capital firm stands as an embodiment of the American dream. It is a tale that grows rarer every year, with skyrocketing costs of higher education and a middle class that’s losing the economic potential necessary to fuel our economy. That’s where Alameel puts his focus. “I don’t care what other issues are involved,” Alameel told the Chronicle. “You have to keep pushing education.”

His passion for the issues comes from his experience as an immigrant and as a father who married into an Hispanic family. For him, immigration policy isn’t just a topic for political debate, but something that he’s lived: citizens harassed by border patrol, grandmothers separated from their children, businesses that need hardworking laborers. It is a refreshing perspective in a campaign season filled with hyperbolic claims from folks who live their lives in sanitized suburbs.

While other Democratic candidates will hit the pavement to register and turn out voters in Texas’ big cities, Alameel says he wants to stay along the border and make sure that those folks vote not just in the primary, but in the general election. It is an admirable goal in a state with such low turnout.

They throw in a few nice words for Maxey Scherr at the end but concede that Alameel will be better funded. The Chron’s rather warm embrace stands in contrast to the Star Telegram, who also endorsed Alameel but wasn’t impressed with any of the Democratic candidates and mostly went with Alameel on the grounds that he might be able to have a reasonably well-financed campaign. I was going to say that the Chron endorsement of Alameel was the first major endorsement by someone other than an individual I’d seen, but a scan of his campaign Facebook page shows that he has been receiving a decent number of group endorsements around the state, and it included the link to the FWST editorial that I’d missed. Scerr, for her part, is quick to send out emails touting her endorsements, which recently included the San Antonio Express News and the Austin Chronicle.

Also in the Chron were a handful of judicial primary endorsements, with this one being of the most interest:

113th Civil District Court: Steve Kirkland

Steve Kirkland’s loss in the 2012 Democratic primary for the 215th civil district court stands as a case study in the pitfalls of a partisan elected judiciary. After serving for years as a dedicated and highly praised judge, Kirkland was challenged by an unqualified opponent whose campaign was almost exclusively funded from a single source – local plaintiff’s attorney George Fleming, who coincidentally had lost a major judgment in Kirkland’s court. The election was marred by underhanded attack ads, and the message to Harris County was clear: Justice is for sale.

Democracy should not go to the highest bidder. But history threatens to repeat itself. Fleming is at it again, bankrolling Kirkland’s only challenger in this race, Lori Gray. There is no question in this election. Democratic Party voters should send a message and put Kirkland back on the bench where he belongs.

A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Kirkland served for four years as a civil court judge and eight years as a municipal court judge. He may not have the backing of a big-dollar plaintiff’s attorney, but he does have the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle.

I noted Fleming’s financial involvement in my roundup of 30-day finance reports for county candidates. I hope the dynamics of the primary this time are more favorable to Kirkland, but we’ll see. The Chron made no recommendation in the Democratic primary for County Criminal Court at Law 10, and made endorsements in three Republican judicial primaries. I have to assume there are more of these to come, as there are quite a few other contested primaries, and I can’t believe the Chron won’t take the opportunity to weigh in on the GOP race for the 311th District Family Court, home of Judge Denise Pratt. We’ll see if they have more to say on these and a few other races, like SD15, as early voting gets underway.

January campaign finance reports for Harris County candidates


In our previous episode, we looked at the campaign finance reports for Democratic statewide candidates. Today, let’s have a look at the reports for candidates for countywide office in Harris County. I’m not going to get down to the Constable or JP level – I’m not aware of any interesting primaries, those districts tend not to be too competitive, and there are only so many hours in the day. Neither County Commissioner Jack Cagle nor Jack Morman has an opponent, so I’m skipping them as well. The real interest is in the countywide campaigns, so here are those reports.

County Judge

Ed Emmett
Ahmad Hassan
David Collins

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Emmett 28,600 119,244 401,209 Hassan 0 1,250 0 Collins 0 0 0

The only thing Judge Emmett has to fear, I’d say, is a 2010-style Democratic wave. Other than that, he should win without too much trouble. In the meantime, he will have plenty of campaign cash to spend on various things, including a $10K contribution to the campaign of Paul Simpson, who is challenging Jared woodfill to be Chair of the Harris County GOP, and $5K to the New Dome PAC. It’ll be interesting to see how much he spends on other campaigns from here on out.

District Attorney

Friends of Mike Anderson
Friends of Devon Anderson
Kim Ogg
Lloyd Oliver

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Anderson 0 29,730 36,739 Ogg 66,643 8,897 40,771 Oliver 0 0 0

The Friends of Mike Anderson PAC gave a contribution of $66,469.58 to the Friends of Devon Anderson PAC, which closed out the books on it. I presume Devon Anderson will commence fundraising at some point, and will have all the resources she needs. Kim Ogg has done a decent job fundraising so far, but it’s what you do with what you’ve got that ultimately matters. Zack Fertitta had $145K on hand as of his 30 day report in 2012, and we know how that movie ended. Early voting starts in three weeks, you know.

County Clerk

Stan Stanart
Ann Harris Bennett
Gayle Mitchell

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Stanart 16,400 19,398 45,969 Bennett 10,748 7,113 2,442 Mitchell 1,138 2,010 0

Stan Stanart has $20K in outstanding loans, which was the case in July as well. His fundraising came almost entirely from two sources – the campaign of County Commissioner Jack Cagle ($10K), and a Holloway Frost of Texas Memory Systems ($5K).

District Clerk

Chris Daniel
Friends of Chris Daniel
Court Koenning
Judith Snively

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Daniel 0 15,871 0 Daniel SPAC 31,843 24,166 20,859 Koenning 38,165 48,974 112,814 Snively 5,300 3,095 2,204

Still a lot of money in this race. Incumbent Chris Daniel’s PAC and challenger Court Koenning both have the same outstanding loan totals that they had in July – $74,500 for Daniel, and $50K for Koenning. Democrat Judith Snively has loaned herself $4K. I suspect we won’t see as much money raised in this race after the primary as we do before it.

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez
Arnold Hinojosa
David Rosen

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Sanchez 23,500 5,577 220,437 Hinojosa 0 1,250 0 Rosen 2,875 2,122 651

Orlando Sanchez’s eye-popping cash on hand total comes from an equally eye-popping $200K loan to himself. This leaves me wondering where he got that kind of money. Did he do really well for himself from 2002 through 2007, when he was in the private sector, or was he just that well off before he was elected Treasurer in 2006? Maybe someone with a journalism degree and some spare time should look into that. Google tells me that his primary challenger Hinojosa is a constable in Precinct 5. Other than paying the filing fee, he had no activity to report.

HCDE Trustee

Debra Kerner
RW Bray
Michael Wolfe – No report

Melissa Noriega
Don Sumners

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Kerner 0 810 329 Bray 135 0 135 Wolfe Noriega 0 8,690 9,335 Sumners 0 750 0

Neither Michael Wolfe nor Melissa Noriega has filed a report with the County Clerk; Noriega’s report is from the Houston finance reporting system, for her City Council account, which will presumably be transferred at some point. Not a whole lot else to say except that everyone on this list has run for office at least once before, and with the exception of RW Bray has held office at least once. Who knew the HCDE Board of Trustees would be so popular?

113th District Civil Court (D)
311th Family District Court (R)

Steve Kirkland
Lori Gray

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Kirkland 55,065 6,806 35,963 Gray 35,000 30,209 4,791

Denise Pratt
Donna Detamore
Alecia Franklin
Anthont Magdaleno
Philip Placzek

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Pratt 146,020 78,361 67,659 Detamore 0 2,591 0 Franklin 15,555 13,595 47,317 Magdaleno 7,562 11,519 299 Placzek 6,700 25,012 149

I’m not interested in watching all of the contested judicial primaries, but these two are certainly keeping and eye on. The 113th is shaping up as a rerun of the 215th from 2012, in which the candidate running against Steve Kirkland is being financed by one person. In this case, George Fleming and the Texans for Good Leaders PAC he runs gave all of the money that Lori Gray collected. I don’t know Ms. Gray – she has responded to Texpatriate’s Q&A, but as yet has not sent answers to mine; if she has a campaign webpage or Facebook page I haven’t found it – but I don’t care for lawyers with vendettas like Mr. Fleming.

As for Judge Pratt, she may have a gaggle of challengers this March, but she’s not feeling the financial heat at this time. She’s also doing what she can to stay in the good graces of the establishment, with $10K to Gary Polland’s Conservative Media Properties, LLC for advertising and $10K to the Harris County GOP for various things (I’m not counting the $2500 for the filing fee). We’ll see how much good it does her.

Still more state and county finance reports, plus the city reports, to go through, and the federal reports should start being posted on February 1. January is a very busy month.

Another complaint filed against Judge Pratt

Pretty much needed to be one.

Judge Denise Pratt

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 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?

More from the Pratt files

This is just bizarre.

Judge Denise Pratt

Since being cleared last month by a grand jury for backdating records, a family court judge has quietly dismissed hundreds of cases, effectively nullifying a bevy of child support obligations and custody arrangements she previously made to protect children and families.

Lawyers say state District Court Judge Denise Pratt gave no prior notice of her intent to drop their cases from her 311th Court. Nearly 300 have been dismissed since Dec. 20, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s Office, including many that had been scheduled to go to trial soon.

All but 19 were dismissed on a single day, Dec. 30.

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 lawyers said they learned their cases had been dropped after the fact by postcards mailed by the district clerk or by word of mouth from clients.

Among those dismissed were three cases from which Pratt had been recused earlier in December.


Several of the newly dismissed cases involve lawyers who had joined Enos in publicly criticizing Pratt. Enos’ firm had three cases dismissed, including one from which Pratt had been recused by a visiting judge and another from which she had voluntarily recused herself.

“It is a ridiculous, shocking, unconstitutional, unfair thing to do,” Enos said. “It’s going to have terrible consequences for children and families.”

Joan Jenkins, one of the 32 family lawyers who signed a letter last fall calling for Pratt to resign, said one client whose divorce was set to be finalized told her a week ago that his wife had found out their case had been dismissed. He said his wife showed up at the family home with a police officer and told him she was moving back in.


Family lawyer Rob Clark had five cases dropped, including one he said Pratt threatened to dismiss in open court on Dec. 30, giving no explanation. That case involves a mother who had been awarded temporary custody of her toddler daughter while seeking to collect child support from the father, who had moved to Florida. With a dismissed case, the father “could come from Florida to pick up the kid and there’s nothing she can do,” said Clark, who signed the letter calling for Pratt’s resignation. “It’s crazy.”

Pratt’s lawyer, Terry Yates, said the judge always has granted motions to reinstate in the past, and blamed any lack of notice on a new electronic filing system the District Clerk’s office is using, under a state Supreme Court mandate.

“She is finding out that some of those notices didn’t go out,” Yates said. “They’ve just got to file a motion to reinstate, if someone’s case was dismissed for want of prosecution, so it’s really no big deal.”

District clerk’s office spokesman Bill Murphy said the new system,, “has nothing to do with the mailing of notices of upcoming dismissal hearings.” That responsibility, he said, falls on court coordinators, who are employed by the county but “handpicked by the judges for whom they work.”

State District Court Judge David Farr, the administrative judge for the family courts, said Pratt had no authority to dismiss cases from which she had been recused.

What the hell is going on in that courtroom? I know Judge Pratt just got no-billed by the grand jury on charges that she falsified dates on court documents, but clearly there are more things to be investigated here. Seriously, does any of this sound normal to you? Hair Balls, which had the story first, and Texpatriate have more.

Judge Pratt gets no-billed

From the inbox:

Judge Denise Pratt

Harris County Grand Jury “No Bills” Judge Denise Pratt

“We are pleased that the grand jury agrees with us that there’s absolutely no evidence that Judge Pratt tampered with court documents or did anything illegal,” says her attorney, Terry W. Yates.

“The office of the District Clerk was created by the Texas Constitution as a backstop for the judges. One of their primary jobs is to keep the court papers in proper order. Unfortunately, this did not happen in the 311th District Court,”says Yates.

“The problems with the court documents emanated from the number of deputy clerks that were assigned to this court; more than 20 in the last three years. Some of these clerks were not properly trained and were otherwise unqualified for the position of deputy clerk,” says Yates.

Yates added, “Judge Pratt is very relieved that this matter is behind her and she is working hard to serve the citizens of Harris County.”

See here for previous blogging. It’s been a rough few weeks for Judge Pratt, and I’m sure she’s happy to get a bit of good news going into the holidays. She’s not out of the woods yet, however. Here’s the Chron story with more details.

Several family court lawyers who have sought to recuse Pratt from their cases in recent weeks have presented documents from her 311th family district court that appear to be backdated. A pair of visiting judges approved nine of those requests earlier this week.


District Clerk Chris Daniel, who launched his own investigation after receiving a copy of Enos’ complaint, released a statement saying that “our office’s own investigation of these alleged backdating incidents found only one instance of backdating by a court clerk.”

His spokesman, Bill Murphy, said the office found another document that appears to be backdated, but no one initialed it, so it is “unclear who processed” it.

[Greg] Enos said in an e-mail that the backdating of court orders “was always just the tip of the iceberg of problems with her, but that was what happened to arguably be a crime.”

The 53-year-old family lawyer filed a similar complaint last year against a Galveston County judge that preceded an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments that led to the judge’s suspension and eventual resignation.

Enos’ complaint detailed other problems with Pratt. Lawyer Fred Krasny said Pratt regularly shows up to morning and after-lunch hearings an hour late, costing lawyers time and clients money. Others have said she sometimes has not shown up to hearings at all.


Lawyers who have spoken out against Pratt since Enos filed his complaint expressed frustration on Friday with the grand jury’s decision.

Matthew Waldrop, a lawyer who had eight cases removed from Pratt’s court this week by a visiting judge, said he is considering filing another criminal complaint.

Lawyer Robert Clark, who still has more than a dozen cases in Pratt’s court, said he is readying motions asking her to be removed from some or all of them. Clark argued a case in Pratt’s court in January for which she issued a ruling in May. The official court record now says the ruling was issued on Jan. 30, the day before the two-day trial actually ended.

“I don’t want my clients to suffer any adverse actions as a result of my being a vocal opponent of the judge,” Clark said.

See here and here for stories about those recusals. Even if Judge Pratt survives further complaints, she still has that primary and a November election to get through. I’m thinking she’s got a very tough road ahead of her.

Judge Pratt update

The most embattled Family Court judge in Harris County is still on the ballot, in case you were wondering.

Judge Denise Pratt

Embattled state District Court Judge Denise Pratt, accused of falsifying court records to cover up tardy rulings, intends to remain on the ballot to face the voters, her lawyer says.

In late October, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint against Pratt, alleging she falsified court records in an effort to cover up tardy rulings. A Webster family lawyer filed a similar complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

County Republicans have said they are awaiting the outcome of a grand jury investigation before taking any action against Pratt, such as asking her to step aside.

But it may be a moot point. Today is the filing deadline for candidates, and candidates have only until Tuesday to withdraw from the ballot.

Pratt denies any wrongdoing and has no plans to withdraw from the ballot, her lawyer Terry Yates said Friday.

“She did nothing improper or illegal,” he said.

Pratt’s clerk resigned after allegations surfaced that the judge altered and backdated court records to make it appear that she issued rulings and filed documents sooner than she actually did.

Yates confirmed that the criminal complaint against Pratt is under review by a grand jury and said his client is “cooperating fully.”

If the grand jury does not come to a conclusion in time for the advisory board to act, Woodfill said voters will have their say. As of Friday, Pratt had garnered one Republican primary opponent, Donna Detamore.

That story was from Monday, so it’s up to the voters now. Thanks to a couple of late filings, they now have even more choices.

Embattled state District Court Judge Denise Pratt had garnered four challengers in next year’s GOP primary election by the filing deadline on Monday.

A complaint against the Republican freshman judge that led to the resignation of her lead clerk and an investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s office is being reviewed by a grand jury. The complaint was filed with the DA’s office and the state Commission on Judicial Conduct by Webster family attorney Greg Enos.

As of Friday, only lawyer Donna Detamore had filed to run against Pratt. By 6 p.m. on Monday, though, lawyers Alicia Franklin, Anthony Magdaleno and Philip Placek had also joined the 311th District Court race.

Republican politico and lawyer Gary Polland, whose endorsements are considered key to GOP primary wins, said last week he would endorse Franklin if she filed. He endorsed Pratt during her first run in 2010, but said he would not do so again because he considers her a “political liability.”

Pratt, however, says she will not withdraw from the ballot and flatly denies the allegations being made against her.

“I’m sure you have heard the rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media,” Pratt wrote in an e-mail sent Monday to GOP precinct chairs. “I wanted to take this time to let you know that the allegations brought against me by the Democratic faction are false. I am a conservative Judge and because of my principles I am being attacked. I have already filed to run for re-election as judge of the 311th Family District Court, and will not let the underhanded political tactics by the Democrats keep me from doing my job.”

And I’m sure the Commies are out to get you, too, Judge Pratt. At least until the District Attorney decides whether or not to charge you with official misconduct. For the record, Sherri Cothrun is the Democrat running for the 311th Family District Court in November. Cothrun was a candidate for the 246th Family District Court in 2010, and she is law partner to Rita Lucido, the Democratic candidate for SD17. I’d advise Judge Pratt to be more concerned about facing a quality opponent like Sherri Cothrun than anything the media might report about her.

If Judge Pratt wins the nomination and then subsequently withdraws for whatever the reason, she could not be replaced and the Democrat would be unopposed; this is the one thing for which we can be thankful to Tom DeLay, since he firmly established that fact in 2006. We’ll see what the grand jury has to say, as I presume their verdict will have a large effect on that.

See here, here, and here for the background. For what it’s worth, I recently asked a friend of mine who practices family law what he thought about Judge Pratt. My friend confirmed all of the things we have heard so far about her courtroom demeanor and management. It’s probably fair to say she’s not well liked by the lawyers that appear before her.

Speaking of the lawyers, the story adds this little tidbit:

The political situation would appear to put local Republican Party leaders, including Woodfill, in an awkward position.

Since last year, Pratt has appointed Woodfill to cases for which he has made nearly $10,000. He is not the only lawyer and Republican Party leader Pratt has appointed to cases in her court since taking the bench in 2011.

According to information obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, former party chairman Gary Polland, whose endorsements are considered key to judicial GOP primary wins, has made more than $79,000 in legal fees from appointments by Pratt. Lawyer George Clevenger, chairman of the party’s finance committee, has made more than $114,000.

Judges giving appointments to lawyers with whom they have political or other ties long has been the subject of controversy.

You could say that. It’s why Gary Polland is such a fierce opponent of the Harris County Public Defender’s office as well – he makes a ton of money from appointments, so having a public defender cuts into his bottom line. Just something to keep in mind.

Piling on Judge Pratt

Boy, an awful lot of lawyers have it in for Judge Denise Pratt, and they wrote all about it in a letter sent to other lawyers asking them to call on her to resign.

Judge Denise Pratt

The letter, signed by 32 prominent Houston-area family lawyers was penned by Webster family lawyer Greg Enos, whose criminal complaint sent last month to the district attorney’s office has sparked an investigation, according to county and courthouse sources.

The complaint also led to an internal investigation by the Harris County District Clerk’s office, the keeper of all court records, which led to the resignation late last month of Pratt’s lead clerk.

The Monday letter asks colleagues to support “our effort to get Judge Denise Pratt off the bench for the good of the family bar, the families and children of Harris County and the many excellent family court judges whose re-elections might be endangered with Judge Pratt on the same ballot with them.”

“We are all too familiar with the problems caused by Judge Pratt’s work ethic, her refusal to accept agreements made by parents regarding their children and her rulings which are so frequently delayed or contrary to the law or facts presented in court,” the letter says. “We are ‘sticking our necks out’ to stand up for what is right and asking you to do the same.”

One of the signatories, longtime divorce lawyer Joan Jenkins, said she would have signed the letter just based on all the complaints against Pratt she has heard from reputable lawyers. She said she has, however, experienced problems with Pratt on a case this year that led her to draft a complaint that she sent to Enos for consideration.

“I have never in my entire career experienced a judge that I felt was more corrupt with less actual knowledge of the law and with a poorer work ethic than Judge Pratt,” Jenkins said. “There is really nothing I can say about her that I consider to be representative of a good judge.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a revised and updated criminal complaint against Judge Pratt filed by Enos. I don’t have any insight on this, I’m just watching it all with a wide-eyed sense of amazement. Hair Balls has more.

Who judges the judges?

Meet the guy that’s been going after judges with behavioral issues.

The photograph at the top of Greg Enos’ monthly email newsletter is always the same: A pack of mongooses confronting a reared-up cobra.

The Webster family lawyer says the image is a symbol of a change he aims to kindle in the Houston-area legal community – at least in family courts.

“I do not expect to win every case,” Enos writes at the end of most newsletters. “I just want an efficient system in which my client gets a fair hearing by a judge who works hard, knows the law and does not play favorites.”

The newsletter Enos started nearly three years ago, titled the International Journal on the Reform of Family Courts or The Mongoose for short, has been one tool in his quest. Criminal complaints filed against judges have been another.

The 53-year-old Austin native’s criminal complaint last year against Galveston County Judge Christopher Dupuy preceded an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments related to judicial misconduct that led to the judge’s suspension and eventual resignation.

Enos’ next target is 311th state District Court Judge Denise Pratt, a Republican family court judge first elected in 2010, whom he has accused of falsifying court records in an effort to cover up tardy rulings.

See here for the background on that. It’s far too early to know if the complaints about Judge Pratt have any legs, but they do seem to be getting attention. Of interest is that with each judge, Enos documented cases for criminal prosecution, rather than just file complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Enos also sent his complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, but described the move as a formality, calling the commission “worthless” based on its response to the Dupuy complaint.

“I don’t expect them to take any action because they wouldn’t in his case,” Enos said.

The SCJC proved to be largely worthless during the Sharon Keller debacle of 2010, so one can hardly blame Enos for seeking alternate paths to justice.

From the “Judges Behaving Badly” files

We’ll start with now-former Judge Elizabeth Coker:

An East Texas state district judge who had been accused of sending text messages to coach a prosecutor during a trial, being biased against some attorneys and improperly meeting with jurors has resigned as part of an agreement with a state judicial commission.

Elizabeth E. Coker did not admit to guilt or fault as part of her agreement with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission announced Monday that Coker had taken an immediate leave of absence and her resignation will take effect Dec. 6. The agreement also prevents her from ever being a judge again in Texas.

Coker had been a judge since 1998. She oversaw proceedings in Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties. Her father and grandfather had also been judges who presided over the same counties.


The commission said that during an August 2012 child abuse trial Coker presided over, the judge sent text messages to Polk County prosecutor Kaycee Jones, suggesting questions that Jones should relay to the prosecutor handling the case.

Coker was also accused of suggesting that a witness review a videotaped interview he gave to law enforcement to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony and of discussing legal issues pertinent to the case “in an unsuccessful effort to assist the State (to) obtain a guilty verdict in the case.”

The defendant ended up being acquitted of a felony charge of injury to a child.

The commission also alleged Coker might have engaged in other improper communications and meetings with Jones and other prosecutors in Polk and San Jacinto counties and certain defense attorneys regarding pending cases in her courtroom.

“Judge Coker allegedly exhibited a bias in favor or certain attorneys and a prejudice against others in both her judicial rulings and her court appointment; and Judge Coker allegedly met with jurors in an inappropriate manner, outside the presence of counsel, while the jurors were deliberating in one or more criminal trials,” the commission said.

In addition, the commission alleged Coker “may not have been candid and truthful” in testimony before the panel about whether she tried to influence the testimony of a witness who spoke to the commission.

That’s quite the sorry litany of bad judicial behavior. About the only thing I can think of that she could have done to make it worse would have been to bet on the outcome of the cases before her. Personally, I think she got off too lightly – I think disbarment would have been a fitting punishment. But at least she’ll never don the robes again.

The prosecutor Coker texted is now herself a judge, and is facing her own inquiry for her role in that incident.

While the state judicial commission’s investigation into alleged improprieties by State District Judge Elizabeth Coker ended Monday with her resignation, the focus may now shift to any possible complicity by fellow judge and former prosecutor, Kaycee Jones.

Coker’s voluntary agreement to resign alludes to complaints that she “engaged in improper ex parte text communications with Jones,” who served as a Polk County assistant district attorney for 10 years until this year becoming the 411th state district judge.

On Tuesday, Jones could not be reached for comment. But in a previously written letter to the Texas Bar Association’s disciplinary counsel, Jones said that during her tenure as prosecutor she improperly utilized clandestine text messages sent from the bench by Coker.

Jones acknowledged passing along the texts, designed to bolster the prosecution’s case, to the lead prosecutor during a child abuse trial. “It was wrong and I knew better,” she wrote.

Jones’ name was prominently mentioned three times in Coker’s resignation agreement. The signed document refers to the so-called “texting and judging” incident as well as allegations of other improper communiques and meetings between Jones and Coker involving additional cases that were not specified.

Apparently, her boss at the time in the DA’s office made her promise to never do it again, but that ain’t good enough. Jones’ formal hearing is in March, but honestly, unless she has something better to say for herself, she should just save us all the time and trouble and submit her resignation. I don’t see how she can be trusted as a judge given her appallingly bad judgment.

Those two are known to be bad apples. Here in Harris County, we have an accusation of bad behavior against a Family Court judge.

State District Court Judge Denise Pratt is under investigation, accused of backdating court records to make it appear that she issued rulings and filed court documents sooner than she actually did, according to county officials.

Allegations against the 311th family court judge, raised by a Houston-area family lawyer in a criminal complaint filed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, already have led to the resignation of Pratt’s court clerk.

Webster-based family lawyer Greg Enos, whose criminal complaint last year against a Galveston County court-at-law judge sparked an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments that led to the judge’s suspension and subsequent resignation, said he delivered his complaint against Pratt to First Assistant District Attorney Belinda Hill on Monday. Enos said he believes the office has already launched an investigation.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said he “can’t confirm or deny” whether any investigation is underway, but county and other sources say the office is looking into it and already has contacted attorneys to arrange interviews.

The concerns Enos is raising also have touched off an investigation by the Harris County District Clerk, the official keeper of all court records.

District Clerk Chris Daniel said he looked into two of the six cases Enos included in his complaint, which led to the resignation on Monday of Pratt’s lead clerk, a well-liked, 25-year employee of the District Clerk’s office.

Daniel said he found records were postdated or mis-marked in those two cases, and that he is looking into a seventh one that another family lawyer brought to his attention.

An inaccurate timestamp or missing signature on a court document not only erodes “the integrity of the record,” Daniel said, but can have an impact on appeals and other legal processes.

“If you have the wrong date on a document, then statutorily you can run out of time to appeal a case, and that’s where the most damage is,” he said.


Several lawyers involved in the cases Enos cites in his complaint said they never have experienced such problems with a judge.

Marcia Zimmerman, a 30-year veteran family lawyer based in Clear Lake, said she resorted to filing a motion after waiting for months on a ruling from Pratt. When the ruling finally came in, she was surprised to see the date listed was months before she had filed her motion.

“I don’t think any of us believed the ruling was actually made before the petition for writ of mandamus because, why would she rule and not tell anybody?” Zimmerman said, noting that Pratt also missed two scheduled hearings.

Family lawyer Robert Clark said he had a similar experience, arguing a case in January and then waiting five months for a ruling from Pratt that the official court record now says was issued on Jan. 30, the day before the two-day trial actually ended.

“The thing is, it’s had a seriously adverse affect on the child in this case and my client,” Clark said. “This is just egregious.”

The DA’s office doesn’t comment on these matters so we don’t know for sure what’s going on with Judge Pratt, but the main charges against her are serious and could lead to a felony arrest if there’s sufficient evidence to bear them out. As things stand now, she would be up for re-election in 2014, though as was the case with our old buddy Chuck Rosenthal, whose name was dropped at the end of the story, she might come under pressure from the local GOP to not file. The filing deadline in December 9, and I daresay that regardless of what is being said officially about her case, we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether or not she’s in real trouble by then.