The Insider

Judicial Restraint
The revelation that a lowly assistant in District Clerk Charles Bacarisse's office rerouted cases to courts where they might get a favorable hearing has had Harris County's civil district judges at odds. The tension finally erupted last week in a round of exclamatory judicial e-mail and a heated exchange of words during a regular meeting of the county's "big board" of district judges.

The intake clerk, a young woman whom Bacarisse has declined to identify, managed to circumvent the computerized system that results in the random assignment of newly filed lawsuits to civil district courts. She is suspected of directing at least 69 cases to particular judges' courts early last year. It is believed that many of those cases may have been rerouted to disguise a smaller number that involved bribes paid to the clerk by attorneys and sent through bicycle messengers who deliver lawsuit filings to the district clerk's office.

A general order by the district judges mandates the random assignment of cases to prevent lawyers from selecting judges they perceive as favorable to themselves or their cases.

Bacarisse says he fired the clerk in late August as assistant district attorney Chuck Knoll launched an investigation into what we'll call, for lack of a better tag, Clerkgate. The probe ended late last year with no charges brought against the clerk or any lawyers who might have been involved. Knoll told The Insider there did not appear to be any clear patterns in the clerk's assignment of the cases.

But an afternoon spent tracing the route of the cases on a list provided by Bacarisse seemed to indicate otherwise. In 12 of the 13 divorce petitions directed by the assistant clerk to Family District Judge Don Ritter, the plaintiffs were represented by either of two Nigerian-American lawyers.

Of the 35 personal injury lawsuits on Bacarisse's list, seven ended up before District Judge Kathleen Stone and 11 were directed to District Judge Carolyn Marks Johnson. One Republican judge who requested anonymity suggests the lawyers wanted their cases before Democrats Stone and Johnson because of their reputation for being more plaintiff-friendly than other judges.

The manipulation of the assignment system was discovered late last spring by Bacarisse deputy Wes McCoy, but the cases remained in the courts where they had been sent until last week. They were finally sent back through the system for random reassignment after some of the more conservative GOP jurists on the civil district bench began raising questions about the handling of the affair.

The delay in the reassignment, as well as the lack of any further punitive action against the clerk, has fueled suspicion on the part of several judges that Sharolyn Wood, the chief administrative judge for the civil courts, was trying to cover up a scandal and protect allies whose courts had received the tainted cases. Her colleagues first elected Wood to the administrative post in 1995; she narrowly won re-election this past December over fellow Republican Scott Brister. Stone and Johnson had supported Wood's bid for re-election.

A printout of e-mail from the judges' internal computer system obtained by The Insider reflects an almost comic chain of reactions by the jurists to Clerkgate. Brister got the dialogue going on February 11 by expressing outrage that "nothing has been done" to apprehend the lawyers allegedly engaged in getting their cases sent to favorable courts.

"It may be that the attorneys involved knew nothing about it, but somebody ought to at least inquire, especially if money changed hands," Brister wrote. "This kind of thing can destroy (1) the appearance of fairness in our system and (2) the reputations of the judges to and from whom cases are transferred."

Brister ended with a warning: "I intend to raise this matter at the Big Board lunch today and request the Board to refer this matter to the appropriate authorities."

Forty-two minutes later, Judge Elizabeth Ray registered her concurrence and insistence on a "full internal investigation." Only seven minutes passed before Stone weighed in with her agreement. "We need to take some action NOW," wrote Stone.

With that, the judicial chatroom really heated up. Judge Tad Halbach joined the chorus for "a full and complete investigation" and added, "I feel like this was swept under the rug!!"

At that point, Judge Don Wittig cautioned Halbach against such intemperate musings.

"Fourth hand, I understand that the district attorney has already investigated -- fully -- and filed no charges. The intake person was fired," wrote Wittig, who then advised Halbach against adopting the self-immolatory tactic of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War. "Before we pour gasoline on ourselves and turn on the blowtorch, let's let our administrative judge appoint someone or a committee, carefully and JUDICIALLY study what has been done and then take appropriate action."

Wood then entered the cyber-arena with her own warning: "I will be careful with my words because libel is involved. I am not going to use the term being used in some e-mail messages. Some very innocent attorneys could be hurt."

She went on to explain that she preferred to refer to the affair in terms other than fraud or bribery. "There were filings directed to specific courts," Wood lectured. "Those of us who have been looking very closely for the last three weeks agree on this term." Wood further insisted that "categorically, no judges were involved" in the rerouting of the cases and claimed a judge had originally asked the district attorney's office to investigate.

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