By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It's not often that judges go to court in Texas with their jobs at stake, but Houston may soon be the site of not one but two such tribunals. The Insider has learned that the 11-member State Commission on Judicial Conduct will conduct court hearings to consider removing state District Judges Jim Barr and William "Bill" Bell from office in response to complaints of improper conduct from lawyers and prosecutors.
The last such hearing occurred in Galveston three years ago and resulted in the removal of John Thoma as a county court judge. While not confirming the impending trials of Republicans Barr and Bell, Robert Flowers, the executive director of the judicial commission, says he cannot recall two judges from the same city being under the commission's gun at the same time during his 14 years with the agency.
Neither Barr and Bell returned phone messages from The Insider.
Both judges, according to courthouse sources, have been informed by the commission that the hearings could result in their removal from the bench. The two have informally discussed the complaints against them with the commission, which then voted to hold hearings presided over by special magistrates. In Barr's case, Judge Noah Kennedy of Corpus Christi is to convene the hearing on the morning of March 11 in Judge Ted Poe's court. Bell's tribunal is reportedly scheduled for late April.
The commission will issue its findings after evidence has been presented in the open proceedings. The rulings could range from dismissal of the complaints to reprimands to the actual removal of the judges and the stripping of their retirement benefits. When the process goes as far as a hearing, commission sources say, it usually means that the commission is seeking removal of the judge.
The nature of the violations alleged against the two judges differ. Barr presides over criminal cases, and his alleged questionable conduct includes ordering a Harris County sheriff's deputy, Rudolph Rendon, jailed last January for failing to appear as ordered in Barr's court. Rendon actually spent the night in his supervisor's office, but Barr's order angered Rendon's supporters in local law enforcement ranks.
Barr also generated a number of complaints with what his lawyer claims is routine lowbrow courthouse humor, but which others see as sexist and defamatory comments. In one incident, Barr crooked his finger to summon several female prosecutors to his bench. When the women asked what he wanted, Barr replied, "I wanted to see if I could make you come with one finger."
In another courtroom exchange, prosecutor Sally Ring had raised a number of objections to a defense lawyer's questions, prompting Barr to tell her that if she made any more objections, "I ought to slap the crap out of you."
In a third episode, Barr laughingly told an intermediary for lawyer Kent Schaffer, who had asked the judge to reset a court date, to "tell Schaffer to go screw himself."
Barr's attorney, George Parnham, says the exchanges were simply courthouse banter that has been taken out of context. As for Barr's jailing of Rendon, Parnham claims that law enforcement groups have pushed the complaint with the commission and that a finding against Barr will intimidate other judges from demanding that officers comply with court rulings and orders.
The complaints concerning Bell, a civil district judge, allege he had improper contacts with lawyers involved in two cases in his court. One of those is the toxic tort lawsuit by Kennedy Heights residents against Chevron.
At a convivial dinner party in January 1996, Bell reportedly offered attorney Holly Williamson an ad litem appointment to the Kennedy Heights case for what he billed as a generous fee. When Williamson explained she could not accept the offer because her firm represented Chevron on other matters, Bell went on to suggest she tell Chevron that it needed to replace its lead attorney, Bobby Meadows, because Bell thought he was a liar.
After Williamson informed Chevron's attorneys of her exchange with Bell, they requested that Bell recuse himself. The judge then called Allan Port, a partner at Meadows's firm, Gardere Wynne Sewell & Riggs, and suggested that Chevron should not push for his recusal. Port declined to discuss the details of that conversation with The Insider.
Bell eventually recused himself from the case, claiming one reason was that his father-in-law had hired John O'Quinn, one of the lawyers representing the Kennedy Heights residents. That statement, as it turned out, was not true. One source says Bell sheepishly explained later he had concocted the connection between O'Quinn and his father-in-law to save face for agreeing to recuse himself from the case.
In the other complaint, Bell allegedly initiated improper telephone contact with Vinson & Elkins attorney Margaret Wilson, who was representing the Catholic diocese in Corpus Christi in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct by one of its priests. At the time of the call, Wilson had a motion pending before Bell seeking the transfer of the case from Houston to Corpus Christi.
Wilson declined comment, saying she has been subpoenaed by the judicial conduct commission. Another source familiar with the complaint says that Bell, in his call to Wilson, seemed to link Wilson's transfer motion to help the attorney might provide him in his difficulties arising from the Kennedy Heights case.