Hungry: Will Judge for Food!

Former criminal district judge Woody Densen has been defeated both as a Democratic incumbent and a Republican challenger, but he still occasionally sits as a visiting judge in Harris County. Recently Densen's assignments dwindled alarmingly while visiting judges from outside the county continued to rake in long hours and big bucks.

So in late January Densen fired off a plaintive letter and open-records request to Harris County Commissioners Court that reads like a homeless jurist's plea for employment.

"Now retired, I desire to work in my county as often as possible," stated Densen. "I am 58, healthy, well qualified, and love my work as a judge, yet I only have a one day assignment for the entire year of 1999."

He requested figures on how much those long-distance visiting judges are charging in lodging, food, travel and other incidental expenses.

"As you know, attention has been given the costs to Harris County for out-of-county judges sitting in our county," wrote Densen. "It appears the cost to Harris County taxpayers could be hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Densen then posed the big question: "Do Harris County taxpayers feel justified in spending thousands of dollars on out-of-county visiting judges when we have many of our own who are qualified and available to work?"

The former judge neglected to mention in his missive that he has an unwanted date pending in Austin with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. The judicial watchdogs are investigating complaints that Densen solicited contributions from lawyers for a campaign fund-raiser while he was sitting on the bench as a visiting judge.

Densen is represented by attorney George Parnham, who also defended judges Jim Barr and Lupe Salinas in their legal travails. With a confidential hearing slated before the commission on April 8, it would seem Densen's ambition for a return to the visiting judge circuit will stay unfulfilled a while longer.

Since Densen's open-records request forced the county auditor to compile the expenses of visiting judges over the past five years, the Insider figured the public might as well benefit from that effort. According to a computer analysis ordered by courts administrator Jack Thompson, Harris County spent $846,365 during that time for transportation, hotel and meals, and a per diem for the jurists. That doesn't include their salaries, which are paid by the state.

The champion of expenses during that period is Mexia's Putnam K. Reiter, a more-or-less nonelected full-time judge of the special asset forfeiture court. He charged $112,727 from 1995 through this year.

In second place with $95,667 is J.E. Blackburn, a judicial utility infielder from Spearman. Third place, at $53,352, belongs to family court visiting judge Maryellen W. Hicks of Fort Worth. Surprisingly, down-home boy Densen rang up $23,039.36 in expenses, placing him in the top 15 for the five-year period.

Densen did not return a call for comment, but at least one criminal attorney couldn't be happier that Densen's court dates have dwindled to near zero.

David A. Jones blew the whistle on Densen last year when he claimed to have caught the judge soliciting from the bench for a campaign fund-raiser in his GOP primary race against attorney Pam Derbyshire for County Criminal Court No. 7.

Jones says he was waiting in the courtroom where Densen was presiding. A lawyer who had been talking with Densen at the bench came back to Jones and told him the judge suggested he attend the fund-raiser.

"I then introduced Densen to another young lawyer who didn't know him, to see what would happen there, and that lawyer came back and said he had been hit up for the fund-raiser," recalls Jones.

At the time, Jones was a business partner with GOP Republican Party chairman Gary Polland in an FM radio station. Jones fired off a letter to Polland reporting the incident and suggesting that the chairman should take care of the matter since it involved the GOP primary.

Derbyshire defeated Densen in the primary and won in the general election. According to Jones, Derbyshire forwarded his allegations about Densen to the state judicial conduct commission, which launched an investigation. Neither Derbyshire nor Polland was available for comment.

Jones claims that after he reported Densen's behavior, the judge retaliated by berating him for being late to an April hearing in Judge Jeannine Barr's court, where Densen was the visiting judge. Jones claims Densen then tried to force him into a deal with the prosecutor for a client who was not ready to plead out.

In a letter to Olen Underwood, the administrative judge for the judicial region that includes Houston, Jones blasted Densen and suggested he be permanently banned as a visiting judge.

"Judge Densen was unfit to serve as a judge during the last five years of his service before the voters retired him in 1994," fumed Jones. "He is unfit to serve now, and many lawyers in Harris County hold that opinion, though not many would express it due to Judge Densen's well-known trait for vindictiveness and bullying."

Jones filed his complaints just as public debate flared over the phenomenon of defeated judges coming back as visiting jurists. The arguments provoked the Harris County judiciary into policy changes that effectively reduced Densen's court time.

Criminal courts Administrative Judge George Godwin says that defeated judges are no longer used for special courts that require a judge's services on a nearly full-time basis. That leaves them as only temporary fill-ins for sitting judges. Defeated judges can serve only if the sitting judge specifically asks for them by name.

Godwin says he was unaware of Densen's pending case before the judicial conduct commission and that technically it would have no bearing on his work as a visiting judge. "But theoretically, of course, we've tried to certainly avoid any kind of controversy or anything of that nature," allows Godwin, "since a lot of people have very strong feelings about the visiting judge program and what-have-you."

Asked about Densen's complaint regarding the higher cost to the taxpayer of using out-of-county judges, Godwin says he's more concerned about the quality of a judge than the size of their expenses.

"Expenses are always a factor, because everybody looks at the bottom line, but we're looking for qualified judges to sit and man those courts," says Godwin. He believes the public wants quality justice rather than budget judges.

Densen may be pining for a bench, but the man who signs off on the visiting-judge assignments shows little sympathy for his plight.

"The fact remains that if the citizens of Harris County wanted Woody Densen to sit on the bench down here," opines Godwin, "they wouldn't have unelected him."

-- Tim Fleck

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