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Have You Heard the One About Judge Jim Barr?
Judge Jim Barr, for all intents and purposes, is on trial for his judicial life," intoned lawyer George Parnham last week during opening arguments of a hearing convened by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct at South Texas College of Law.
The snowy-haired Barr's physical appearance didn't contradict his attorney's words. The normally cocksure, wisecracking state district judge slouched speechless in the dock before special magistrate Noah Kennedy, his pale, pinched face as mirthless as that of his wife, fellow criminal court Judge Jeannine Barr, who sat directly behind her husband wearing a similar expressionless mask.
Jim Barr certainly didn't seem in the mood to beckon to bystanders with a crooked finger and declare, "I just wanted to see if I could make you come with one finger," as he did from his bench to assistant district attorney Sally Ring, one of the prosecutors assigned to try cases in his court. In fact, he looked, to paraphrase a threatening rebuke he meted out last year to Ring, like someone had slapped the crap out of him.
And maybe, with good reason, they had.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct proceeding, which thus far has cost Barr at least $10,000 in legal fees paid from his campaign account, could result in a public reprimand or possibly the appointment of a seven-member tribunal of state appeals judges to weigh Barr's removal from his 337th District Court bench. The nine-year Republican jurist is accused of violating the constitutional rights of a deputy and behaving in a manner that discredits the Texas judiciary. The seriousness of the inquiry is reflected in the numbers: 114 Texas judges over the past 14 years have chosen to resign rather than face the same type of proceeding.
The hearing was continuing as we went to press this week. After it concludes, Kennedy will review the evidence and the matter will go back to the judicial conduct commission for further consideration. It will likely be months before Barr learns his fate, and he will have the opportunity to appeal any judgment against him to the Texas Supreme Court.
The judge's loose lips and courtroom antics have put him in the cross hairs of two very different posses. One complaint against Barr was lodged by District Attorney Johnny Holmes and grew out of Barr's repeated sexist and somewhat creepy remarks to the female prosecutors Holmes once assigned to Barr's court --Ring, Luci Davidson and Kim Parks. The other involves the arrest order Barr issued for sheriff's deputy Paul Rendon after Rendon failed to answer a defense lawyer's subpoena to appear in court. Barr's order outraged area lawmen and triggered a vendetta by the Harris County Deputies Organization, which tried to have the judge indicted on charges of official oppression. When a grand jury refused to indict Barr, the deputies' organization sought redress on Rendon's behalf from the judicial commission.
By jailing Rendon, the son of the Aldine school district police chief, and setting his bond at $50,000, a level commensurate with that for defendants accused of serious felonies, Barr had initially intended to "send a message" to peace officers who ignore subpoenas from defense lawyers. Now the situation is reversed, as the complaints by the district attorney and the deputies' union could send a very different message to Texas judges: Mess with prosecutors and law enforcement personnel at the risk of your job.
As his penchant for off-color repartee might suggest, Barr is not your typical Republican criminal-court judge. Unlike most of his colleagues, who toiled as prosecutors under Holmes before winning election to the bench, Barr hails from the defense side of the criminal bar. In the mid-eighties, he was just another lawyer roaming the halls of 301 San Jacinto, one of those who spent his days drifting from one hospitable court to another, hoping to snag appointments from friendly judges to represent indigent defendants.
"I remember him as pretty lazy," recalls one acquaintance. "He'd hang out in particular courts as long as they would get him an appointment a day. Woody Densen was one of his favorites."
Barr ran unsuccessfully for a county court-at-law judgeship in 1986, but sailed into the 337th District Court post two years later, buoyed by nothing much beyond the filing fee he paid to get on the ballot and the rising Republican tide in Harris County. Barr had always considered himself a bit of a jokester, and with the power of his new judicial status, he could be sure of an ever-appreciative circle of lawyers and court employees who would laugh at his every wisecrack.
"He's cutting and nasty, and not just to women," says a lawyer who has tried cases in Barr's court. "He has a mean-spirited edge to him, and it's across-the-board. I don't know whether he's been hardened by judicial service, or he's just naturally a mean-spirited prick."
Barr met and married prosecutor Jeannine, who then followed in her husband's footsteps by running and winning election to the bench in 1994. In a lunchtime conversation, Barr once jovially commented to another lawyer that he had to work in his wife's campaign "or she won't spread her legs for me."