Balancing the Bench

Will race and bad blood play a part in the Guv's judicial picks?

Texas Governor George Bush now has a chance to address the huge racial imbalance in the Harris County judiciary. Whether he does or not depends on a tangled set of judicial appointment considerations, including candidate resumes, party loyalty and festering grudges involving the aspirants for the jobs.

With only two African-Americans and one Hispanic among 78 Houston-based district and appellate jurists, Bush is set to make appointments to two district benches and one appellate court. Dozens of candidates threw their names into the Guv's Stetson for the judgeships, and a short list of finalists is being culled by Bush's appointments chief Clay Johnson.

In recent years, gubernatorial appointment has been virtually the only way for minorities to go on to win Harris County-wide election as judges. Bush had appointed the three incumbents, Dwight Jefferson, Belinda Hill and David Medina, who were victorious in the November election. (Incoming County Judge Mike Fields, a former prosecutor, is the one local exception to the appointment rule: The African-American beat an Anglo incumbent in last spring's GOP primary and went on to victory in the general election.)

Bracewell & Patterson attorney Pat Oxford chaired Bush's Harris County campaign and is considered one of the governor's best local sources for judicial input. Oxford says Johnson calls the shots on evaluating appointments, and "no one in the region has direct impact on the appointments, although from time to time all kinds of people are called in Houston with respect to applications that are filed."

Still, Oxford says his sense is that the racial imbalance in the county judiciary is a factor for Bush in making the appointments, but he's not sure how much weight race will carry in the selection. The governor's choice must come from the applications being screened by Johnson, though Oxford notes the field is still open and there may be more entries.

Bush will name replacements in three courts: the 125th Civil District Court, the bench vacated by Judge Don Wittig's election to an appellate post; the 338th criminal court, where Judge Mary Bacon retired; and the 14th Court of Appeals, where an opening was created by the election of Justice Harriet O'Neill to the Texas Supreme Court.

The most controversial choice will be for the 338th. One of the favorites to win the governor's nod is Don Stricklin, the first assistant to District Attorney Johnny Holmes. A judicial source speculates that Stricklin would never have formally applied for the job had he not been assured by Bush's staff that the appointment was a done deal. But Stricklin is also a prosecutor with enemies in both Democratic and GOP county ranks.

Stricklin incurred the ire of the Mexican American Bar Association in Houston for his dogged prosecution of former district judge Lupe Salinas on felony charges for minor campaign report violations. Although a judge eventually dismissed the case, the prosecution destroyed Salinas's chance at a presidential nomination to the federal judiciary. As we went to press, MABA officials were making a last-ditch effort to stop Stricklin's appointment, by getting members' approval to send a protest letter to Bush opposing Stricklin's candidacy.

MABA president Arturo DeLeon says the charges against Salinas and another MABA member, Arnold Govea, were "political in nature, and certainly I don't feel Stricklin is a friend of the Hispanic community or Hispanic attorneys."

As Holmes's top administrator, Stricklin has also absorbed some community ire as a result of a grand jury's failure to indict officers in the police killing of Mexican national Pedro Oregon. Holmes refused to submit the shooting to another grand jury, in stark contrast to Stricklin's pursuit of Salinas through three different grand juries.

Democrats and minorities are not Stricklin's only critics. He also angered former county judge and current GOP state Senator Jon Lindsay by overseeing a perjury prosecution of Lindsay for filing false campaign reports. Unlike Salinas -- now a visiting judge in the Rio Grande Valley working toward getting vested in his judicial pension -- Lindsay has the power to exact revenge.

Lindsay represents the district in north Harris County, where Stricklin resides. Traditional senatorial courtesy leaves him the right to approve or nix the governor's appointments for his area. Thus, the senator has the perfect opportunity for a payback on the prosecutor who once tried to nail him on a felony charge.

Although the courthouse has been rife with rumors that Lindsay would do just that, neither the senator nor Stricklin returned Insider calls to discuss that scenario. A consultant close to Lindsay doubts the senator would do anything so obvious as to deep-six Stricklin's appointment -- one reason being the judicial family connections at the courthouse. The senator's wife, Tony Lindsay, and Stricklin's wife, Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, are both district judges. Think how socially and professionally awkward it would be for the two women, says this source, if the hubby of one zapped the judicial aspirations of the hubby of the other.

Of the supposed bad blood between the pair, one courthouse observer cautions that "there's no hotbed of political gossip more often inaccurate than the Harris County courthouse. These judges and the people around them are yapping all the time about stuff they don't have a clue about."

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