By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The State Judicial Conduct Commission's latest hearing on the behavior of a Harris County judge was temporarily suspended last week after providing fresh evidence, as if any were needed, that Texas's current method of electing judges is hardly putting the best and the brightest on the bench.
When state District Judge William "Bill" Bell, clad in an American flag tie, took the stand and calmly made blatant misstatements of fact while testifying in his own behalf, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that patriotism is now only the next-to-last refuge of the scoundrel in Harris County. Lawyers who get really down on their luck can always run for judge.
The four-day hearing probing Bell's questionable contacts last year with lawyers outside of his court adjourned on May 23 amid some confusion. Special magistrate Brock Jones canceled scheduled closing arguments in the proceeding after a well-known Republican activist and lawyer, Holly Williamson, showed up at the hearing escorted by District Attorney Johnny Holmes. Williamson then produced a previously undisclosed tape of a conversation she had with Bell that contradicted Bell's testimony and splintered what remained of the civil district judge's credibility. The tape may also elevate the commission's civil inquiry into a criminal investigation by Holmes of possible perjury by Bell. Whether the tape is admitted into evidence in the judicial commission hearing remains to be ruled on by Jones.
The commission is evaluating 30 counts of alleged misconduct by Bell. It will weigh the evidence from the hearing and decide whether a further proceeding by a special tribunal of judges to remove Bell from his bench is warranted.
While the Bell hearing lacked the sexual overtones of last month's commission inquiry into vulgar comments by state District Judge Jim Barr to female prosecutors in his court, its classic "gotcha" ending left Bell's colleagues stunned.
"It's absolutely disgusting," says one district judge who had maintained an impartial stance through the hearing. "If it's true that he lied, it's a complete disgrace."
The same judge says that the torrent of bad press recently about Bell, Barr and other judges has noticeably lowered the morale of the local state judiciary. But he has little sympathy for the targets. "I don't think very many people feel sorry for Bell," says the judge. "If he knowingly lied, then he's got what's coming to him."
One prominent former supporter of Bell's isn't waiting for a verdict on the future of the embattled jurist, declaring, "He's got to go now." Just where that might be is unclear. Holmes refused to discuss Bell's predicament with The Insider, but even if Bell resigns and the commission closes its inquiry, Holmes will be the final arbiter of whether criminal charges are brought against the judge for perjury.
A lanky, 39-year-old former commercial litigator, the boyish-looking Bell was swept into office in the 1994 Republican landslide, beating then-Democrat Willard Tinsley to win the 281st District Court bench. In his subsequent two and a half years as a judge, Bell has experienced a string of personal and professional setbacks. Last year, he began recounting his marital problems to colleagues in embarrassing detail. Although his now ex-wife testified in his defense at the hearing, she hardly helped his cause by giving testimony that clashed with Bell's. "I know it sounds goofy," a colleague says of Bell's openness about his personal problems, "but you've been watching him for three days now. Are you surprised?"
In his defense, Bell has claimed he is the target of a conspiracy to oust him from the bench headed by fellow civil District Judge David West and including at least four prominent attorneys. But the fallout from the hearing suggests Bell's own worst enemy is himself. Had Bell owned up to the alleged improper conversations with the lawyers, he likely would have escaped with a slap on the hand from the judicial conduct commission. The potential consequences of lying while under oath are criminal penalties and the loss of his legal license.
The commission hearing on Bell offered a fascinating safari through the internecine jungle of Harris County judicial politics, where Democratic judges are so close to extinction that the GOP political animals have little to feed on but themselves.
The prime combatants are two senior carnivores on the civil district bench: current chief administrative Judge Sharolyn "Mama Bear" Wood, considered to be highly opinionated and abrasive by other judges, and the equally outspoken West, Wood's predecessor in the civil administrative post. Wood's husband, probate Judge Mike Wood, has long been the brain truster of the moderate Republican faction in Harris County, while West's ties run mostly to conservatives.
For the commission hearing, West testified that Sharolyn Wood screamed at him hysterically over the phone last year after he intervened to advise Bell to clean up his act and consider recusing himself from the Kennedy Heights case, the well-publicized toxic tort lawsuit brought by black residents of that mostly black subdivision against Chevron and other defendants. Bell did voluntarily remove himself from the case shortly after his conversation with West, citing pressure from unnamed judges to do so. During a special hearing Wood convened to consider Bell's claim of interference by fellow judges, Wood criticized West's actions as irresponsible, though she did not mention him by name. Last week, West described Wood's judicial behavior as "more egregious" than Bell's.